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Postmodernism and Modern Africa

Date sent:      Mon, 22 May 1995
From:           Samuel Kasule, University of Derby

                Editor's note,
                The following was inspired by David
                Moore's suggestion, regarding video
                for teaching African colonialism, that
                "modern" as applied to Africa might
                best be considered in terms of
                Indeed, the question of what is to
                thought of as "modern" Africa and what
                is "post-modern" Africa is a subject
                which H-AFRICA readers may want to
                consider at greater length.

How postmodern is postmodernism???? Any ideas?

From:           David Moore, Flinders University (S.A.)
Date sent:      Tue, 23 May 1995

Actually, when I answered the question on videos for "modern history" on colonialism, I included a line from the message I was replying to, so the query "how modern is 'modern'" really meant, "how modern is modern history?" It was a simple query, implying that I wanted to know if "decolonization" would be included among the films under discussion.

However, the question on post-modernism DOES concern me, as I am about to present a paper to the Britain-Zimbabwe Society Research Dayschool at St. Anthony's College in Oxford, entitled "Trying to Think About Politics in Zimbabwe Without Being A Post-Modernist." After reading and assigning to students Jean-Francois Bayart's *The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly*, and Achille Mbembe's article in *Public Culture* (1992) on "The Banality of Power," I have been thinking about post-modernism and Africa quite a bit.

Colin Ley's review of Bayart, "Confronting the African Tragedy," in the *New Left Review* (March-April 1994) captures some of those feelings: Bayart is to be admired in many ways, but his cynicism and nihilism (or is it just pleasure at watching the theatre?) are worrisome. Some of my students are mystified over why I would even consider him worthy of assigning: they read pomposity and empty verbiage. I do like his efforts to get past the "dependency" debate, and some of his attempts to use Gramsci. I think there is a lot of pleasure there too: a much better way of looking at "political culture" than the modernization school!

Jane Parpart's writings on post-modernism and gender are less nihilistic: she finds the methodology good for deconstructing gendered discourse in Africa, and for bridging historical and "development" discourse in the disciplines, and, I think, does not find it to be a disempowering methodology.

All in all, post-modernism (or hyper-modernism? David Harvey's work still seems the best general introduction to me, as his linkage to the new global politics of "flexible production" remains a materialist one and his thoughts on modernism make the two look very similar) may be a good way to look at the varying historical times that are and have been ever-present in Africa, and a good way to think about the beguiling nature of the meta-narratives some of us have been working under. But when it gets to the POLITICS of post-modernism, that is when I begin to worry.

Date sent:      Wed, 24 May 1995
From:           George Steffen, Tacoma School System

If "modern" = decolonization, how can we call the conditions in at least West Africa "postmodern?" From my humble perspective, the "de-" in decolonization seems to stretch on as the colonial structures and boundaries and ideas crumble but do not die. Reading the current events magazines on West Africa leaves me with the feeling of colonialism's legacy of borderline psychopathy, i.e., many seem to have no clear sense of social boundaries, of "right behavior," of social identity.

Tribal or language identities may end up being the only possible cure for this legacy. Certainly, there seems to be less and less rightness in left-over European categories and structures. Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but I do so only because I don't see anything "post-" in what is going there.

Date sent:      Wed, 24 May 1995
From:           Samuel Kasule, University of Derby

My [gut] reaction to George"s response to the debate on `modern/post modern' is that in the context of Africa we would take moderninsm to have begun with colonisation [the introduction of European civilisation] while on the other hand one may say that in the Caribbean modernism begins with the arrival of Columbus.

One is again tempted to link post modernism with the development of capitalism. Europe [excluding Ireland) and America may be said to be in the post modern age, but this is difficult to be said of Africa just because there is no clearly developed capitalist nation in Africa.

BUT again literature operates differently: we may argue that the classification of a literary piece of work--whether it is modern or post modern etc-- is an act of reading not an act of writing. Therefore, irrespective of the social/political/historical conditions operating on the continent (in a nation) writings from that nation/continent may be considered to be modern/post modern or hyper-post modern (?).

What do you think?

From:           Bruce Janz, Augustana University College
Date:           Wed 24 May 1995

On the postcolonial and the postmodern, one interesting reference is the chapter from Kwame Anthony Appiah's book *In My Father's House*. I think it was originally a paper called "Is the Post in Post-Colonial the same as the Post in Post-Modern?", although there is no mention of that in the book.

Date sent:      Wed, 24 May 1995
From:           David Ericson, Virginia Tech

Re: the apllicability of the post/modern nomenclature to Africa. A first question to address might be whether we are talking of post-modernism as a style of presentation (I come from a literature background and so frequently see the po-mo term applied in that way) or as a term for a condition of the modes of relation and communication. I tend to favor the latter definition. The continued application of "modern" to designate industrialized, post-colonial Africa carries it's own problems.

Date sent:      Wed, 24 May 1995
From:           George Steffen, Tacoma School District

My impression is that if "post-modern" is linked to the development of capitalism, then the term must realistically deal with/imply continuing connections with neo-imperial, comprador structures which grew up from the late colonial period on. The continuing presence of French troops in various crises, of American corporate ties (witness the major economic losses in Liberia and Sierra Leone - loss of foreign producers), of intellectual and educational ties to the metropols. Effective statehood at all seems more the problem than what label one might give it.

In my limited reading, I am not aware of much of a national capitalist class in any country in W. Africa (the only area I have any knowledge about) nor any significant industrial base (except perhaps Nigeria). Unless I have made a large error here (please correct me if I have), the question of capitalism at least in W. Africa has not really gone beyond local economies and imperial extractive industries. All of this implies that many of these states are still dealing more with a lingering colonial past than with capitalist and/or local future.

I am on even more shaky ground when it comes to literature, but my experience in Latin American studies reminds of the regular occurrence of dissonance for intellectual elites pulled between European literary (and cultural) trends and local (non-European) conditions. Does local life-choice support those foreign visions? Do they speak to average African either urban or rural? Are they good tools for teaching a people about themselves because they ring true, or do they? These are not rhetorical comments. I really don't know to what degree the literature growing up in present-day Africa does represent its people. Comments?

Date sent:      Thu, 25 May 95
From:           Claire Dehon,

I do not like to use terms such as "post-modern" while speaking of African literature for two reasons: I do not understand really the meaning of the word, and I do not like to use Western terminology unless I really believe the novelists have used the term to describe what they are doing.

As for the question is there a local literature that speaks to local people in West Africa, I can answer for the French part with a yes (I know also about the English part, but that is not my specialty!). Although university criticism speaks often of writers who live in exile such as Mudimbe, Beyala, Liking, Marie N'Diaye, there are people such as Aminata Sow Fall, M. Diabate,A Mamani who write for their people. It is often a less fancy literature, but it express very well the "ordinary" African soul. Evidently, the problem with that literature is that it has not been translated in English! If you are interested, I could send you a list of titles.

Date sent:      Thu, 25 May 1995
From:           Denise Miller, Northwestern University

I agree with Claire's hesitation about using the term "post-modern" when applied to African literature (and many other literatures, for that matter). And, yes, I would be interested in a list of French titles as I am considering doing a translation and need to select an appropriate title.

Date sent:      Thu, 25 May 95
From:           Mary Lanser, Pennsylvania State University

I am terribly confused on this issue of post-modernism. The hey day of the intellectual `period' is waning and I have yet to comprehend the involvement of the local intellectual community (U. S.). I ask the following out of sheer ignorance and tell you so that you don't mistake ignorance for cleverness.

I have long thought, while struggling to wade through the opaque language of self-styled `intellectuals of and from the people' or postmoderns, that the primary message of the postmodern exercise was one of critique, deconstruction, giving voice to the other--as clearly distinct from listening to the voices of others as they try to explain themselves. Even Spivak's `us' seems much more diverse than she, at times.

This question is for the Africanists: have I been terribly mistaken to identify Cesaire, Lumumba, Nyrere, Cabral, Fanon, etc. as early African postmodern-ists clearly preceeding the postmodern entry into the American academy. Could the *Palm Wine Drinkard* be counted as postmodern as well? N'gugi, maybe?

Is postmodern critique limited to academics of the last three decades primarily in European and American universities with a few post-independence add ons? Or does postmodern only apply to those whose tarmac is kept in good repair?

From:           Bruce Janz, Augustana University College
Date sent:      Fri, 26 May 1995

Mary Lanser raises some good questions. I have been trying to grapple with similar issues while writing a paper about African philosophy and postcolonialism. My inclination is to think of postmodernism as a mood, rather than a historical phenomenon. If postmodernism is the questioning of modernist values of objectivity, progress, efficiency, structure, and so forth, I think it is possible to see a variety of writers as modernist and postmodern at the same time. Postmodernism is an interpretive mood that emphasizes the cracks in a grand narrative.

I too don't quite know what to do about claims of postmodernism for African thought. If postmodernism is the questioning or problematizing of modernism, what is "postmodern" African thought a questioning or problematizing of? Its own "modernist" past, if it has one at all? Colonialism? Some (although not all) expressions of postmodernism amount to little more than cultural relativism -- is that what postmodernity means here?

Part of my hesitation concerning applying postmodernism to this situation is that a) it is imposed as a theoretical structure which does not resonate with African practice, and b) that theoretical structure, for some theorists, has a kind of necessity about it (the natural outgrowth of modernism). If African thought was never modernist, it can't be post-modern, either.

The wild card, of course, is colonialism, which could be seen as a prime example of modernism (rationalization of resources, efficiency, the assumption of the universalizability of European values, rationality, goals, etc.). But this is a modernism that was imposed, and resisted by many. Does it make sense to talk of a postmodernism when the modernism was never your own?

My inclination is to look toward hermeneutic philosophy as being more fruitful, while realizing the possible difficulty of theorizing what Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of suspicion. In other words, African self-understanding cannot be explicated using the European categories of modern/postmodern (post-colonial has its own problems, in my opinion, but that's another story), but has to find its own mode of self-understanding, while at the same time recognizing its own hidden agendas. African philosophy, at least, is in that process right now.

Date sent:      Fri, 26 May 1995
From:           Martin Klein, University of Toronto

I have never been sure what modernism and postmodernism are, though some of the postmodernists have very real insights on colonialism. I do however question Bruce Janz' effort to link the colonial and the modern. [See Bruce's post of same date; ed.]

Date sent:      Sat, 27 May 1995
From:           Samuel Kasule, University of Derby

Isn't it true to say that the 'modernist' movement in the visual arts in Europe, especially if we take Picasso's work, was inspired by African art works - masks & carvings - brought back by travellers or looted from Benin? I stand to be corrected. If however this is true, then one can talk of modernism having existed in Africa before exploding on the European continent.

Further, isn't it possible to say that post-colonial postmodernist historical fiction(s) can become some of the most important ways by which oppressive discourses (EuroAmerican?) can be resisted and exploded?

What do you think?

Date sent:      27 May 95
From:           Chris Lowe, Reed College

African modernism, defined as a cultural and aesthetic attitude, was widespread, so there could be an African post-modernism, I'd say.

Were there African modernists? What happens if we take many early and mid-20th century Africans who called themselves "progressive", or who were labelled that way by others, and compare how they thought with the way modernists elsewhere thought? Aren't there lots of similarities? In southern Africa I'd argue there were.

Take King Sobhuza II of Swaziland for example. He had an acute sense of modernity, and a playful one. His manipulation of costume and of media such as photography and radio, and his ironic use of European images of ostensible African primitiveness (seen is his strategic displays in non-traditional contexts of his dress for the national Ncwala ceremony, for instance) were continual and subtle, sometimes breathtakingly so. Increasingly Sobhuza turned his modernist sensibility to constructing a traditionalist politics. Is this post-modernist?

Patrick Harries' recent book, *Work, Culture and Identity: Migrant Laborers in Mozambique and South Africa, c. 1860-1910*, contains fascinating material on how migrant workers used costume combining (in bricolage?) items of commercial and indigenous provenance in a myriad of ways. They used clothes to demarcate both a sense of something like modernity (engagement with a radically changed world produced by industrial labor, and markets in commodities and labor) *and* to differentiate themselves from their perceptions of the white/ European culture which produced the clothes they were using. Popular modernists? Counter-parts to Picasso?

Also I think one would want to look at jazz, modernist music if ever there was any. Jazz is at least post-African ;-) if not African, depending on how you define African. And urban Africans were at least as quick to re-appropriate it as whites were to appropriate it.

One more example. By 1946 at the latest South African mine recruiters in Swaziland attracted crowds by showing films, using mobile projectors outdoors, at about the time the drive-in movie was being invented in the U.S. Films of animals fighting were accounted the most popular by recruiters; similar scenes were key attractions in African-located films made for Europeans and North Americans (and indeed can be ordered via Time-Life videos off the t.v. in the U.S. today).

Thus I think we should be careful about exaggerating African isolation, which risks re-inventing primitivism. The primitivism of modernist Europeans depended on the availability of African art, which in turn depended on colonialism and the longer history of slave and other trades, on exactly the breakdown of isolation. James Clifford's *The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-century Ethnography, Literature and Art* has interesting reflections on these relations, including substantial African examples, including not only colonial appropriations but re-appropriations and transmutations by the colonized.

"This is a modern world" (The Jam, ca 1978) and it's equally modern all over the world. The horrific modernity of bureaucratically and technologically mobilized violence in Rwanda, the dispatch of high-tech medical SWAT teams to Zaire to combat an Ebola outbreak, and the near-instant availability of some variety of information, however distorted, about the same, reveal the connections superficially.

The subtler point is that modernity depends on uneven geographical distributions of technologies, social relations, goods, and cultural items, along with self-conscious reflection on the distributions. Africans are not less modern or less post-modern, but they are differently situated in modernity's structures. Only if or when such differences are homogenized out of existence will modernity and modernism really be over.

It bears repeating the truism that the "post"s in post-modernism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism and so on lack positive definitional content. The phrases imply a reactive phase, which extends whatever we have allegedly become "post" to, rather than making a clear break from it. Since many of the features often attributed to post-modernity (e.g. fragmentation, rapid change, absence of unified value standards) were also attributed to modernity by modernists, the idea that post-modernism is really hypermodernism has a certain appeal.

Perhaps a significant difference is the attitude towards the idea of progress. The idea of modernity, and modernist ideas, were closely tied to the idea of progress, where post-modernism seems to vary between being hostile to it vs. seeing it, in a genially unbelieving way, as just another narrative, interesting enough if well done.

If questioning "progress" is a defining feature of post-modernism, then anti-colonial thinkers, including Africans and Africandiasporans like Fanon and Cesaire, would seem at least to be key pre-cursors. But many or most of them would probably dislike the reduction of politics to aesthetics which seems to be a risk of at least some post-modernism.

Date sent:      Mon, 29 May 95
From:           Claire Dehon, Kansas State University

Art historians have demonstrated that the explosion of forms a la Picasso was happening before and without the discovery of African Art sold to European travelers. This does not mean that African masks and sculpturs did not inspire some of the works during that time. Modernism, in French poetry for example, includes the type of subjects, the disregard for "classical" rules, thus much more than the influence of African arts which was often a superficial borrowing of forms.

From:           Bruce Janz, Augustana University College
Date sent:      Mon, 29 May 1995

A couple of people have raised good questions about modernism and postmodernism in Africa, in relation to an earlier post I made. I think it would help if I made clear the definition of modernity that I am working from. My intuition is that it is a mistake to characterize Africa as modernist in this sense, except as that modernism was imported from elsewhere.

I've got a canned lecture, which started as a reflection on Italo Calvino's *Mr. Palomar*, in which I try to describe modernity (and then present Palomar as the person poised on the far edge of modernity, trying to make sense of it). Some of my depiction is cribbed from David Harvey's book on postmodernity (title eludes me right now), and Lyotard's *The Postmodern Condition*. So, this is modernity from the postmodern critique:

  1. Modernity is the world of optimism toward human capabilities, toward the ability of the knower and the integrity of the known. This is manifest in an overall narrative that makes sense of everything -- the "metanarrative".
  2. The metanarrative is not regarded as just a story, but as really true. The result is that it legitimates some knowledge, beliefs, and practices, and marginalizes others.
  3. The use of this metanarrative is to master or control the world, which amounts to the progressive lessening of lack of knowledge and physical discomfort, as defined by the metanarrative. Efficiency is the key virtue here.
  4. This is seen as a positive break with the past. Reason regards itself as superior, either because it has overcome the past (Enlightenment science), or because it has perfected the past (Hegel).
  5. One feature of this break is a reconfiguration of the nature of value. Before the modern age, there were two kinds of values -- instrumental values (those which were values only because they led to something else more valuable -- money, for example), and terminal values (the values at the end of the chain of inference
  6. Classically, there was a close relationship between theory and practice. There were, of course, moral norms, but these grew out of lived experience. There were abstract aspects to systems, but they were rooted in a concrete history of dialogue. [I know, Plato is a problem here. All I can say right now is that I think there is more than one Plato, and we can take this up some other time]

In the modern world, the gap between the universal nature of theory and practice becomes much wider. Modernity attempts to "rationalize" everything. One other poster pointed to the critiques of modernity that you find everywhere from the existentialists to Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times), that the rationalization of human life leads to alienation.

7. This modernism has its manifestations in every area of life. Art reflects reality (either as the physically given or the ideally given); social policy institutionalizes social hierarchy (dominant vs. marginalized); buildings maximize utility and control access; etc.

8. Finally, the metanarrative brings forth the promise of universal emancipation. If we only work the metanarrative out properly, and if only everyone follows it, all will be well.

These are condensed to the following:

  1. The metanarrative totalizes reality (explains everything)
  2. It is based on the rational self (instead of tradition)
  3. It is the principle of legitimation.
  4. It is abstract
  5. It is emancipatory.

Given this summary, I try to show how some versions of science, marxism, liberal society, and religion have modernist manifestations.

Back to Africa: one person mentioned that we can't come up with a definition of the postmodern, and I agree. That's why it is more useful to think of it in terms of moving past modernism -- not denying it, not ignoring it, but using it against itself.

If all this is true (and it needn't be -- feel free to critique), the question remains: can we use the modern/postmodern distinction about Africa, or must we find another way to think through African history and thought?

[Sorry to those who saw another version of this on H-IDEAS]

Date sent:      Tue, 30 May 1995
From:           George Steffen, Tacoma School System

Since I am bearly able to follow the ins and outs of postmodern literary interpretation, I beg your indulgence. Isn't there a, or some, schools of AFRICAN self-understanding (Pan-African, Negritude, African Socialist) which exist already and have using "domestic" modes and categories of understanding? Perhaps these schools are just as European at base (or responses to European categories) and are passe, but has nothing or no one grown to fill the gap?

I have seen all too many externally imposed systems of analysis in Latin American studies (capitalist to Marxist to...) without more than a nod to how Latin Americans see or conceive of themselves or their reality, though sensitive observers do exist. To narrow the discussion, is Achebe's *Things Fall Apart* considered modern, postmodern or African? I guess I need a signpost or two?

Date sent:      Wed, 31 May 1995
From:           Samuel Kasule, University of Derby

For George Steffen: Have you read Wole Soyinka's 'Drama and the African World View' in *Myth, Literature & the African World*, Cambridge (1990 edition) or *Art, Dialogue & Outrage: Essays on Literature and Culture* [rev. & expanded], London, Methuen, 1993. Try those.

From:           Beth Buggenhagen, University of Chicago
Date sent:      Wed, 31 May 95

This is exactly the subject which V.Y. Mudimbe engages in his works *The Invention of Africa* and its sequel, *The Idea of Africa*.

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