University of New South Wales. Australia
This apparent conflict between a dominant discourse and a local reality, encapsulated in the problem of the legitimation of knowledge, is possibly the essential post-colonial issue. The link between knowledge and power is unquestioned. But we do well to remember Foucault's famous admonition that power is productive and circulatory, not simply static and oppressive (1980: 97). How then, does the post-colonial subject negotiate power while producing knowledge? I believe that an effective model for this is provided by African literary writing which appropriates a colonial language to represent a local cultural reality and interpolates dominant institutions of publishing to effectively create an audience.
In these two essentially political strategies: appropriation and interpolation, we discover the keys by which the apparently benign cultural model of literary writing can provide principles for the rather more pressing social crisis of African institutions - their practical deterioration, their failure to fulfil local aspirations and their containment of intellectual work. The question put before us by Ambroise Kom is that since knowledge is legitimated by structures of power, a power which determines what counts as a legitimate object of knowledge as well as what counts as legitimate processes of knowing, how are the powerless to gain access to legitimate knowledge on their own terms? The more abstract form of the argument is linked in Kom's discussion to an analogous failure of legitimation in African institutions, the corruption and inflexibility of which make them increasingly inappropriate to African societies. The 'multidimensional failure of our institutions' which slavishly imitate colonial models -- 'phantom states in search of an undiscoverable democracy; an extrovert economy which is almost entirely controlled by corrupt networks...' However, the failure of African institutions may not simply be an analogous case, but such institutions may themselves -- because of their corruption and immobility, their apparent determination to maintain colonial structures of power and privilege intact -- constrict the effective development of a hybridised knowledge.
|Knowledge and Power|
The solution to this problem begins by avoiding the temptation to accept the binary between Europe and Africa originally installed by European imperialism. Forms of knowledge generated in the two continents may be different from each other, but they are not incommensurable and they include radical differences of assumption and experience within them. When we deal with a concept like 'Africa,' for instance, we are dealing with something which first emerged in the imagination of Europe. This must make us cautious whenever we talk about an autonomous Africa. Kom's question: 'How can African research, and even research on African topics be validated outside Africa itself?' overlooks the fact that both African research and research on Africa are very definitely validated in the global intellectual community, but validated by an image of Africa as the Other of Europe. Indeed the homogenisation implicit in the term 'Africa' exists precisely to signify the concept of Europe's other.
The overarching problem with the various questions of identity, legitimation, authenticity in Africa, however practical and pressing these issues may be, is one of representation. Whereas Orientalism, for instance, is the discourse of knowing which controls the 'Orient' it is the 'discourse of the unknown' which generates the idea of Africa, for it is the unknown into which knowledge must advance. Thus the idea of Africa precedes and justifies colonialism; it is an epistemological idea, and this idea persists to the present. It is precisely this idea which must be dislodged, and it can never be while Africa remains the simple binary opposite of Europe (or the West).
|An Autonomous Framework of Knowledge|
The problem with the search for an autonomous framework of knowledge is that 'autonomy' must begin from some sense of identity, and that sense seems to be irresistibly drawn toward the representation installed by imperialism. Knowledge is localised when it becomes part of the process of developing identity. 'Knowledge', as Foucault has pointed out, and Edward Said has amply demonstrated (1978), cannot escape power, and indeed may remain one of its major modes of operation. But whether 'knowing' is irredeemably ethnocentric is another question. Kom claims that the really central issue is 'the desire on the part of Africans themselves to create an autonomous framework for the validation and appropriation of a local body of knowledge, which could help them better to perceive their environment and construct a context for living which is suited to their own aspirations.'
I believe that in this issue lies the heart of the problem. For we can concede that 'African Studies' revolves around an image of Africa that began and still remains as the Dark Other of Europe, we can agree that knowledge operates as a mode of cultural and political control. We can accept that there may well be local ways of knowing (I hesitate to call them 'authentic') and bodies of local knowledge, which are more useful to a local community? But what happens when we polarize cultural knowledges and cultural practices and demand of them that they perform all our epistemological work? Should we perhaps be focussing on local uses of knowledge rather than an autonomous framework in which to produce it?
The attempt to discover an African framework of knowledge by rejecting other models can lead to some interesting contradictions. When V. Y. Mudimbe advocates the repudiation of Western rationality, Abiola Irele points out the contradiction of using Foucault to support his argument.
Clearly African societies can find much that is useful in the colonial dominance they are resisting, and indeed can use it in the act of resisting. This is by no means limited to discursive practice but extends to all forms of knowledge.
The difficulty many people have with the apparent ambiguity of 'using the master's tools to dismantle the master's house', stems from an extremely restricted perception of identity. Masolo perceptively reveals a common misconception: the assumption
These assumptions are habitually contradicted by the actual transformative processes of post-colonial experience. This 'solid rock' of authentic identity itself is in a continual state of becoming. It is 'post' colonial, constructed, political, even at its most authentic, because it is being formed within the inescapable historical reality of colonization and its consequences. In some cases, as in the assumption of an authentic African identity, the construction process has assumed mammoth proportions. As Appiah says:
Yet there is no doubt that now, a century later, an African identity is coming into being. I have argued ... that the bases through which it has largely been theorized -- race, a common historical experience, a shared metaphysics -- presuppose falsehoods too serious for us to ignore (1992: 74).
Nevertheless, the problems African intellectuals have with the location of knowledge within power is real. African identity seems beset by ambivalence and contradiction. But is there some way to use dominant technologies of knowledge in a way that is appropriate to local conditions and local aspirations? I believe there is and it is the example of literary writing which provides the key.
The problem with inherited African institutions, and perhaps, with the African state, is not that these are culturally alien, but they have become fossilized. We find similar fossilizations in approaches to literary education where the establishment of a relatively restricted body of English (sometimes British, occasionally American) works were canonised as Literature. Post-colonial scholars, becoming proficient in this subject were often surprised to think that Literature, the repository of Universal values, the revelation of the deepest aspects of the human condition, should be required to have some relevance to local societies. The emergence of post-colonial literature changed this, but not without considerable argument. Post-colonial literatures, which were not considered to be part of the canon, found themselves able to represent their own worlds, their own local cultures with an immediacy often denied so-called Universal literature. They appropriated the techniques and the genres of literature and made them work for African forms of representation.
Although the most potent and widespread forms of appropriation are found in language and textuality the strategy describes acts of usurpation in various cultural domains. In literary writing the dominant language and its discursive forms are appropriated to express widely differing cultural experiences. Chinua Achebe (quoting James Baldwin), noted that the language so used can 'bear the burden of another experience' and this has become one of the most famous declarations of the power of appropriation in post-colonial discourse. However, the very use of the colonial language has been opposed by writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1981a), who, after a successful career as a writer in English has renounced the language of the former coloniser to write his novel and plays in Gikuyu. Nevertheless, Ngugi continues to appropriate the novel form itself and it has been argued that the very success of his political tactic of renouncing English has relied on his reputation as a writer in that tongue.
Ngugi's objections are analogous to the demand for authentic frameworks of knowledge and for locally appropriate institutions. However, the principle of appropriation applies in all forms of cultural practice: western models of governance may be appropriated to local structures of social organisation; global forms of scientific technology may be appropriated to produce locally relevant areas of study. These practical examples provide an approach to the more taxing philosophical problem: whether 'knowledge' itself, as we conceive it is incontrovertibly Eurocentric. In its theoretical sense 'knowing' is, like the will to truth, a relatively recent arrival in European culture. The establishment of boundaries of discourse, when the act of enunciation became less important than the subject of enunciation, is a feature of European modernity. But the phenomenon of knowledge also has class and gender implications in European society without being impervious to various forms of knowledge.
Western mathematics is a practical example of this problem. For Alan Bishop (1990) mathematics is the ultimate tool of Western imperialism. But are mathematics incapable of being appropriated to measurement that is directed at positive local outcomes? Clearly the issue is one of the cultural location of knowledge as well as the structures of power within which it is located. Whatever the provenance of forms of knowing -- and we cannot separate 'knowledge' from these -- they are not impervious to adaptation and local use. It is the purposes of knowing that emerge as the key to this process.
By appropriating the imperial language, its discursive forms, its modes of representation, post-colonial societies are able, as things stand, to intervene more readily in the dominant discourse, to interpolate their own cultural realities, or use that dominant language to describe those realities to a wide audience of readers. Again the example of literature offers itself as a model for the political process of interpolation. Rather than fall into the trap of exclusiveness which the concept of 'autonomy' implies, African writers have 'interpolated' Western publishing networks with their appropriated writing. This interpolation, along with that from South Asian, Caribbean and indigenous literatures of various kinds, has had an enormous impact on what we understand English literature to be.
Interpolation is an ironic counter to Althusser's proposition of the interpellation of the subject, the 'summoning' or calling into being of the subject by ideology. Interpolation describes the process by which colonized subjects may resist the forces which serve to construct them as other; it describes the access such 'interpellated' subjects have to a counter-discursive agency. For this strategy gestures to the capacity to interpose, to intervene, to interject a wide range of counter discursive tactics into the dominant discourse without asserting a unified anti-imperial intention, or a separate oppositional purity. When we view the ways in which a dominant discourse may operate to keep oppositional discourses located, defined and marginal, we see the strategic importance of a form of intervention which operates within the dominant system but refuses to leave it intact.
At the macro level, effective interpolation can only occur with truly appropriated knowledge, that is, technologies of knowing fully appropriated to local purposes. Kwame Gyekye, addressing the problem of the failure of modern technology to take hold in Africa -- which he demonstrates in the case of an African mechanic's preference for making precision adjustments by sight rather than with a feeler gauge -- suggests that technology itself must be understood as cultural and cannot simply be 'transferred.' He also rejects Ali Mazrui's preference for the term 'transplant': In Mazrui's view 'there has been a considerable amount of technology transfer to the Third World in the last thirty years -- but very little technology transplant. Especially in Africa very little of what has been transferred has in fact been successfully transplanted' (Mazrui 1985: 281-2). But 'transplant' implies surgery conducted on a diseased or injured body. According to Gyekye neither 'transfer' nor 'transplant' has been a real feature or method in the phenomenon of cultural borrowing. It is, rather, the appropriation of technology which is assured of success: a method 'which features the active, adroit, and purposeful initiative and participation of the recipient in the pursuit and acquisition of a technology of foreign production' (Eze 1997: 41).
Just as African writing in English has been able to interpolate global publishing with a vision of specific cultural realities, so African knowledges can interpolate global networks to provide a view of a world that is not a top-down trans-Atlantic process of globalization. Although the area of technology appears to be one in which very little interpolation of the complex system of western production has occurred, at least from Third World post-colonial countries, this area is just as subject to cultural transformation and transculturation as music, art, literature and philosophy. The process of interpolation has already begun conceptually as the social and cultural studies of science and technology demonstrate the profound and extensive degree to which scientific knowledge conforms to cultural preference.
What might a 'legitimate' African knowledge look like? Quite simply it would look like a knowledge that met local needs and local purposes but which would not need to dispense with the technologies of knowing. Its autonomy would not exist in the frame of its identity but in the manner of its operation. Globalism cannot be avoided, nor should it need to be. 'Legitimation' may not depend upon the establishment of an 'autonomous framework' of knowledge so much as a direction of appropriated forms of knowing to local uses, and the interpolation of global systems with a locally specific practice.
Appiah, Anthony Kwame. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. London: Methuen, 1992.
Bishop, Alan. "Western Mathematics: The Secret Weapon of Cultural Imperialism". Race and Class 32 (2), 1990.
Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi (ed.). Postcolonial African Philosophy: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. Colin Gordon (ed.). New York: Pantheon, 1980.
Irele, Abiola. "Contemporary Thought in French-Speaking Africa", in Albert Mosley (ed.). African Philosophy: Selected Readings. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995, pp.263-296.
Mazrui, Ali. "Africa Between Ideology and Technology: Two Frustrated Forces of Change", in Gwendolen M. Carter and Patrick O'Meara (eds.). African Independence: The First Twenty-Five Years. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Ngugi wa Thiongo. Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary. London: Heinemann, 1981.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.
Bill Ashcroft teaches English at the University of New South Wales. He is the author and co-author of several books on post-colonial theory, including : The Empire Writes Back; The Post-Colonial Studies Reader; Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies; Edward Said : the Pardox of Identity; and Post-Colonial Transformation.