|BOOK REVIEW BY TONY SIMOES DA SILVA|
Politics and Post-colonial Theory: African Inflections
|London: Routledge, 2001. 164pp. ISBN: 0-415-24750-0|
Ahluwalia begins this study by tracing the development of postcolonial theory and postcolonial discourse: "The terms 'post-colonial', 'post-coloniality' and 'post-colonialism' evoke responses in both the metropole and the periphery. In both locations, there is much debate and discontent about the manner in which the term has entered the lexicon of colonial and post-colonial discourse." (1) Indeed, even if this seems to reflect a confusing shift between post-colonial in its singular manifestation, and all that the term has since occasioned: post-colonialism, post-coloniality and multiple other unhyphenated combinations. Similarly, post-colonial theory and post-colonial discourse also emerge as if they were synonymous of each other, a point the author might have sought to clarify. Crucial to his argument, is the view that post-colonial theory "has been characterised as being epistemologically indebted to both post-structuralism and postmodernism" (1). For him, "[s]uch a reading denigrates the authenticity of post-colonial theory and renders it subservient and theoretically vulnerable to charges levelled at post-structuralism and postmodernism"( 1). His book aims to "clarify and explain the need to differentiate between post-colonialism and other 'post' phenomena" (1).
All in all, a tough call. For if it is important to recognise that post-colonialism has now clearly sought to move away from poststructuralism, it should not be ignored that both movements share a profound concern with identity politics. Feminism has not been any less effective a theory of resistance because of its debt to poststructuralism. Further, identity, in Africa as elsewhere, is also a result of linguistic constructs, of culture - even if we agree that it is not solely thus. This is not to say that postcolonialism is the same as poststructuralism or postmodernism, a distinction Ahluwalia argues eloquently in his Introduction. But Said did begin with Foucault's work in mind, as Ahluwalia recognises, and moved away from it much less than he suggests (here and in the work reviewed above). Homi Bhabha, too, makes no bones about his debt to Jacques Lacan, and Gayatri Spivak's writings could not be more closely indebted to those of Jacques Derrida. But as with so many postcolonial theorists, they are also perfectly at ease with borrowing, acknowledging the loan and then 'rethinking it for their own needs and purposes. As the author notes, when he cites Maryse Condé (27-28), post-colonialism is hardly singular in its tone or political aim.
Ahluwalia rightly points out that such concepts as hybridity, which in post-colonial studies we have come to see as proposed by Bhabha, have always been intrinsic to African identity formation: "...in the African context, multiple identities are part of the very fabric of society" (14). Yes, although, put in these terms, it is hard to see to what extent these identities might differ from those available in the Western supermarket of commodified-make-yourself-up-as-you-go, à la Michael Jackson or Madonna. Further, hybridity is not simply "the result of colonisation" (128), surely. The polyglot nature of African identities illustrates precisely the extent to which Africa is not the exclusive creation of European invasion. We might concur with Mudimbe's (1988) views on the 'invention of Africa', but that does not erase the physical reality of peoples with real lives and aspirations. Mudimbe himself does not strike me as a Derridean avant la lettre.
Ahluwalia seems to argue, and quite persuasively, that Négritude represents a focal point for the articulation of an African inflected 'theory of resistance' - however naïve Négritude might appear in retrospect. What is remarkable is that Césaire and Senghor should have been as far back as the 1920s, so consciously aware of the agonistic power of race affirmation. If theirs was a simplistic, flawed stance, it might be useful to place it alongside later work by writers such as Toni Morrison, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o or Edward Kamau Brathwaite. I would argue that in some of the critiques of Césaire and Senghor is visible an incipient form of blanket refutal of anything remotely inflected by ideas indebted to a colonial presence. The recognition that Négritude "failed to live up to the expectations of the Senegalese people" (27), which as the author notes has been one of the most trenchant critiques levelled at it, begs a question: what else has not yet failed to live up to the expectations of the African people? When in less than half a term in power even a politician such as Thabo Mbeki is able to squander the good work, and goodwill so tirelessly built up by his predecessor over decades of struggle and in government, the question is whether what is good for African intellectuals and politicians is also good for the African people. Besides, as Ahluwalia perceptively remarks, it is wise to distinguish between Césaire's position and that of Senghor.
In contrast, the attempt to get Edward Said interested in Africa, when so much of his work shows so little evidence of such inclinations - even Conrad is read primarilyas Conrad the great modernist Western writer, rather than as the artist whose work best reflects an African inflection, one of complicity with European mis/representations of Africa - suggests one reason why the work is on occasion a little too prescriptive. As it is read here, post-colonialism becomes almost the panacea Ahluwalia so warns us against taking other theoretical approaches to be. Post-colonialism, here closely linked to Said, is hardly an immutableWestern-inflected template. As the author himself remarks, the fact that it rarely fails to excite two people in the same room into lively disagreement, partly accounts for the fact that post-colonialism is potentially at least such an effective critical practice. Were it a less pliable theoretical approach, post-colonialism too would now have gone the way of other theoretical models. In the hallowed realms of 'high theory' more than anywhere else, perhaps, there's such a thing as limited shelf life. Africanists, and African intellectuals, will fail their function if they do not take from postcolonial theory what they find useful, disregarding the rest. Ahluwalia himself points out, when he cites Césaire, that "...every doctrine is worthless unless it is rethought by and for us and adopted for own needs" (2001: 29). It is as a result of this 'Saidian connection' that there is throughout the work an uneasy tension between implying that Africa exists only for, and on account of the needs of Africanists, and suggesting that the latter would be of no use without Africa.
In an important analysis of the way western political institutions have been translated to an African context, for instance, Ahluwalia argues the need to recognise the sense in which citizen / subject coexist, both temporally and ontologically, citing the case of Kenya. Yet, if the Kenyan and Tanzanian (Ujamaa) examples show anything, it is that coercion in the newly independent nation-states takes many forms. Uganda's example is equally typical here, where such forms range from Idi Amin's direct brutality to the International Monetary Fund's more subtle violence. If we are going to consider the 'agency' of a civil society, we might want to keep in mind such 'old-fashioned' concepts as Louis Althusser's 'interpellation'. One of the things that Kwame Appiah's reading of the 'Man on a Bicycle' makes, in his 1992 work, is that it stands at once as the white man's invention and as a symbol of the aspirations of so many postcolonial subjects to be citizens of countries where the white man's inventions (and we know that many of those were actually plundered from elsewhere and claimed to be the white man's inventions) are much more easily attainable elsewhere than in Africa. Indeed, Ahluwalia argues, "... in Africa, and in other parts of the non-Western world, there appears to be a celebration of modernity" (121). One of the risks in some (most?) writing by African intellectuals is that it seems to presuppose a closing of the gates to the very foreign influences they so enjoyed, and continue to enjoy. Après moi, le déluge. The flaw with such arguments is that it denies the very subject whose concerns it so strongly defends the ability to resist interpellation by whatever hegemonic discourses. It is clearly ironic that Bhabha's notion of mimicry should be seen to embody such radical potential for subversion when applied to subject formation in colonial India, and yet so blithely ignored as a way of examining subjectivity in the postcolonial world.
Civil society's relationship with the state need not be anywhere near as static as the author suggests it is in postcolonial Africa. If civil society was at the heart of the struggle against colonialism, so too it can play a crucial role in the reimagination of the postcolonial African state - a view Ahluwalia approvingly quotes from Makumbe's work (81). He argues that already we witness in Africa today a transformation of political and administrative units - a translation into localised conditions and for African purposes. The hybridity he speaks of here is, in some ways, not unlike Cabral's case for a 're-Africanisation' of the mind, and, consequently, of postcolonial Africa. To counter the power of the political elites, what is missing in Africa, and will be for many years yet, is an educated, articulate, politically astute civil society capable of posing a genuine challenge to the organised state. The case of South Africa, unique as it may be, suggests the extent to which the modern, postcolonial, post-independent African state can be kept in check by an active civil society. Mbeki is being dragged kicking and screaming to reconsider his views on AIDS (and we might, for the sake of the argument, even want to accept that the jury is still out on the issue of the best strategies to deal with the disease), precisely because of ground-roots disquiet. With much less success, Zimbabwe's civil society too is showing that it is much less compliant than Ahluwalia suggests it to be the case across Africa.
Yet, although on the one hand a problematic work, Politics and Post-colonial
Theory: African Inflections constitutes an original attempt to make
postcolonial theory 'work for Africa', rather than the other way round. What
Ahluwalia does best, in fact, is precisely to point the way to the kind of
rethinking of a 'doctrine' advocated by Césaire. As he so tirelessly
argues, post-colonial theory need not be seen as the exclusive preserve of
Western intellectuals. It never was, as the work of writers such as Ngugi,
Lamming, Kincaid, Achebe, Brathwaite, Condé and Morrison, for example,
shows. Moreover, they themselves were already following in the footsteps of
others such as DuBois, Senghor and Césaire, whose thinking made possible
a postcolonial way of thinking. Ahluwalia is perfectly right to note that after
colonialism, nothing will ever be the same in Africa, or in Asia or the
Caribbean; or in Europe. And of course Bhabha did not invent hybridity any more
than Ashcroft et al invented the 'post-colonial'; but they set out the
theoretical templates that have allowed others to move on. The present work
represents an important step in that process.