An(other) African Experience: An argument for African Self-Stylizing in Onyeka Nwelue's 'The Abyssinian Boy' (2011)

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An(other) African Experience: An argument for African Self-Stylizing in Onyeka Nwelue's 'The Abyssinian Boy' (2011)
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   An(other) African Experience: An argument for African Self-Stylizing in Onyeka Nwelue’s The Abyssinian Boy  (2011) By Warren Jeremy Rourke  An essay presented in partial fulfilment of the degree of Master of Arts at the University of Cape Town Lecturer: Associate Professor Meg Samuelson “One ‘fictions’ history on the basis of a political reality that makes it true, one ‘fictions’ a  politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth”  (Michel Foucault  Power/Knowledge 1980: 193). The intention of this essay, is in large part, to act as an answer to a question posed by one of the character  s in Onyeka Nwelue’s The Abyssinian Boy , namely ‘why should blacks always  behave as though they are slaves!’ In order to address a question as significantly polemic, as inherently problematic, and as highly charged with discourse as this one clearly is I will draw from a renewed concept of ‘history’. This is primarily through the historiographic method of analysis developed by the  Annales  School, but which has in turn had far reaching effects through to diverse thinkers such as Foucault, and emergent intellectual paradigms such as Indian Ocean studies. Due to the fact that history is largely accessed through texts and textuality I will bring New Historicism into the argument but in a critical manner that gives an example of Western paradigmatic interests . By utilizing concepts such as ‘afro - radicalism’ and ‘nativism’ as developed by Achille Mbembe, it will be shown that “contemporary African modes of writing the self” are caught between historicist tensions  that  stylize Africans from the outside. In looking for new ways of conceptualizing history the work of Engseng Ho will be utilized, as an example of textual recuperation under the rubric of Indian Ocean studies which in turn leads to radical new ways of conceiving both history and the present in which we live. The work of Isabel Hofmeyr, M. P. M. Vink, and John C. Hawley have been most useful in this regard and their insights and criticisms will be brought into this analysis. Onyeka Nwelue’s The Abyssinian Boy  acts as a discursive operation in this regard, in that it is one of the rare texts that can be found that gives signification to an African experience of India. This in turn points  1 to a “fault line”  in contemporary thought and agency regarding the Indian Ocean world, and as the novel is at pains to point out, African  self-stylizing may force others to reconsider their own conceptions of Africa. ‘History’ has become an increasingly prob lematical concept. In the mid-to-late twentieth century the French based  Annales  School sought to dismantle the all-inclusive structure of History 1  as the singular notion it was then conceived as, by looking for a more pluralist, anti-linear, anti-exclusionary, long-term historiographical approach; ‘ histor  ies’, with an acute awareness of the hitherto marginal voices of differing classes, cultural processes, and symbolic activities along with an acute geographical awareness, were some of the ways of reconceptualising the grand-narrative of History along spatial and temporal lines. Added to this, but not yet in any fully developed theoretical form, was an increasing awareness by thinkers associated with the School, that a multitude of discursive and empirical potentials regarding history were possible. Traian Soianovich, in his discussion on the development of the  Annales historiographical method, as opposed to previous interpretive models has stated that , “The  Annales  paradigm 2  constitutes an inquiry into how one of the systems of a society functions or how a whole collectivity functions in terms of its multiple temporal, spatial, human, social, economic, cultural, and eventmental dimensions ”  (1976: 236). By looking at the petit récits 3 , or the small localized histories of provincial France and the Mediterranean arena, thinkers of the school could point out multi-dimensional activities taking place in history. The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, added puissance to this notion by arguing that History is subject to, and dependent upon, discourse and therefore relations of  power/knowledge. For Foucault, History as a privileged concept cannot legitimize its own claims to truth and fact, but can only always be understood as textually situated fictions. By 1  History and historiography, before the work done by the  Annales School, was based on nineteenth century German narrative-orientated historical approaches that were definitively linear and exclusionary. 2   Fernand Braudel in his foreword to Stoianovich’s French Historical Method (1976), notes that the formation of the  Annales   paradigm, as with any paradigm, “If, for example, one refers to Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions , [is that] the first sign of a new paradigm is the building up of doubt over many years. What was once regarded as true or tolerably true ‘no longer stacks up’ with reality”. (1976: 10). I have brought this concept , as well as its application and srcin into view, as I would like to refer to it at a later stage in this essay. 3  This term is not used by the  Annales  School but rather later by Jean-Francois Lyotard who uses it as a counter- semantic operator to what he understands as the ‘grand/ master narratives’ of history. I have used it here to draw attention to the intersection between Lyotard’s epistemological concerns and the multi -disciplinary method of the  Annales School.  2 looking to more discrete historical activities (such as madness and sexuality) Foucault was able to demonstrate alternate historical trajectories. Following from the adumbrations of the  Annales School and the theoretical groundwork done by Foucault, historicist criticism began to take on a new cognizance of history as a problematic notion. Various criticisms concerning the epistemological break that had opened up found one such epigraphic articulation with the American literary critic, Stephen Greenblatt, whose collection of Renaissance essays was said to initiate a ‘New Historicism’. The central axiom of the New Historicist movement is defined as “[…] a theoretical awareness of both ‘the historicity of texts and the textuality of history’” ( Wilson/ Dutton 1992: xi). Emphasis on either the ‘historicity of the text’ or the ‘textuality of history’ have splintered the  New Historicist movement into a Cultural Materialist mode associated mainly with England, and a mainly American (Foucaultian) school of interpretation under the rubric of Cultural Poetics. Without going too far into the intricacies of the theoretico-conceptual differences  between these two emergent schools (which are largely historically based and due to their differing socio-cultural formations), suffice is to say in this context, that the Cultural Materialist (Althusserian) ideological-based worldview takes a more Marxist, materialist assumption as its central premise. As Richard Wilson and Richard Dutton in  New Historicism & Renaissance  Drama (1992) point out, for Cultural Materialism there is an “[…] affirm[ation] that because culture is a material determinant of history, it is a site of ongoing struggle, and how it is reproduced today is as crucial as its srcinal production ” (1992: 228). Cultural Poetics, as the name likewise implies, has a more formalist, structuralist orientated axiom, with a primacy on representation. According to Wilson and Dutton, “Unlike Cultural Materialism, Cultural Poetics emphasises the textuality of history over the historicity of texts, and tends to view cultures anthropologically, as self-regulating sign systems, distinct in their difference from the present” (1992: 228).  New Historicist methodological approaches are brought to the fore because, as with historicist approaches prior to their inception, they tend to a universalizing, as well as an interpolating thematic. New Historicism, as a literary reaction to the old ways of seeing history that the  Annales  School and Foucault have problematized, themselves engage in what can be seen as a type of  grand  -narrativizing. Texts, whether fictional or theoretical, are a powerful means through which individuals come to understand themselves, the world that they live in, and their relation and situation in that world, but; whose texts; which culture; which society; which worldview are those texts aligned to; and what individuals and groups do these texts construct and further construct in opposition..?  3 I join Achille Mbembe in his ‘African Modes of Self  -Writing ’ (2002), as seeing historicism in its dichotomous and binary inducing forms as highly problematic. Mbembe’s focus here is primarily to do with identity constitution, and the formation of subjects, but I  believe that texts and literary approaches to texts can be aligned to his argument as discursive and counter-discursive tools for the  stylization  of African identity. For Mbembe, a distinct African philosophy has developed, from what he sees as a combination of religious and tragedy orientated discourses; German philosophy, on the one hand, and Jewish Messianism on the other, and “[…] that, following the examples of these two metanarratives, contemporary African modes of writing the self are inseparably connected with the problematics of self-constitution and the modern philosophy of the subject” (2002: 239). However, unlike these two intellectual endeavours, African philosophy is said, governed as it is by “narratives of loss”, not to have found any full, systematic, or self-authorizing development. The reason for this, states Mbembe, is because “The effort to de termine the conditions under which the African subject could contain full selfhood, become self-conscious, and be answerable to no one else soon encountered historicist thinking in two forms that led it into a dead end” (2002: 240). Mbembe terms these two forms “Afro - radicalism” and “nativism” : The former is based on decolonisation and the development of nation-states utilizing “[…] Marxist and nationalist categories to develop an imaginaire of culture and  politics […]”, while the latter is based upon a “metaphysics of difference” and “It promoted the idea of a unique African identity founded on membership of the black race” (2002: 240/ 241). Together, nativism  and afro-radicalism  become ways of constituting individuals in a dynamic interaction with historical events (Colonization, Slavery, Apartheid), and the development of what could be a  self-styling   African philosophy, enters into a conceptual deadlock with Western history. To undermine this type of interpretive closure, Mbembe aims to “[…] reinterpret subjectivity as time” (2002: 242). This is to say, that instead of thinking of ‘African’  identity in terms of “time as space”, and “identity as geography”, it would be more sui ted to the “fundamentally fractured” time in which we live to re-conceptualize subjectivity in the “thickness of which the African present is made” ( 2002: 271  –   273). In order to give African subjectivity a “thickness” that counters historicist contingenci es that have led to nativism and  Afro-radicalism , new ways of conceptualizing are necessary .  This means that history itself needs to be re-interpreted, expanded upon, and critically engaged in order for new  paradigms to emerge, which allow us to move beyond the interpretive horizons that we are currently locked into. One of the ways of doing just this, is to look away  4 from  –   while keeping an awareness of  –   universalizing historical trajectories that come to underpin subject formation. Take for instance an intellectual movement such as New Historicism, with its primary focus on texts and textuality; history is primarily accessed by the  presence of its texts. Yet, the absence of historical documentation is notorious when we look away from the ubiquitous history of the West, of Europe, of the Atlantic and is further doubled under the consideration of subjugated cultures, whose identity is then  stylized   (symbolically and theoretically)   from outside. In looking to new ways of conceptualizing Africa, we can draw from work being done that gives alternate ways of seeing, understanding, and discoursing   history. One such work is Engseng Ho’s The Graves of Tarim  (2006), which by tracing the five hundred year old history of the Ḥ a ḍā rima people, calls distinct attention to the trade of the Indian Ocean, as well as, the dispersion of Hadrami society throughout that world, and the resultant textuality of that . As Ho notes, regarding the documented history of Indian Ocean travel, “Of all the histories of  peoples who traveled in the Indian Ocean, those of the Europeans are bes t known […] One cannot say the same of the Gujaratis, Bohras, Banias, Chettiars, Shirazis, and Omanis who settled across the ocean ” ( 2006: xxii). The Indian, Mastaali, Muslim, Swahili, Arab invocations made here relate to a dynamic transcultural interaction among people of the Indian Ocean World, but whose histories are lost to us due to a lack of any textual substantiation. Ho’s project in the Graves of Tarim is recuperative in this respect. By looking to the genealogy of the Ḥ a ḍārima people, and their diaspora, Ho is able to p oint to the emergence of a canon of texts, where “Genealogy combines with poetry, biography, history, law, novels, and pray ers in the diaspora” (2006: xxiii). The framework that Ho sets up through his work on the Hadrami diaspora demonstrates a clear instance of an alternate historical trajectory. The historical opacity of the Indian Ocean is further countered through the theoretical and historicist work being done in what is termed ‘Indian Ocean studies’ . This emergent  paradigm utilized World Systems Analysis, the  Annales School, and specifically Fernand Braudel ’s seminal work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip  II (1949) to re-conceptualize the Indian Ocean as an inter-regional arena of analysis. One of the notable historiographic elements to have emerged from thinkers associated with this scholarship, is a highlighting of the fact that there were no influences of state before European imperialism entered the region. As Isabel Hofmey r notes in ‘Universalizing the Indian Ocean’ (2010), “One strand in this skein informs current debates on transnationalism  –   namely, the notion that the early modern Indian Ocean world supported transregional trade, without the state” (2010: 722).  This current of thought is echoed by Ho, who notes that trade by Europeans,
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