Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Beyond Words: Discourse and Critical Agency in Africa. Andrew Apter. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 169 pp.
When in 1976, Wole Soyinka presented us with Myth, Literature and the African World, and in 1986, Ngugi wa Thiong’o offered us Decolonising the Mind, both writers indeed set in motion the relative beginning of what has become a recurrent debate in African critical discourse; namely, the search for indigenous African theorizing. Soyinka and Ngugi are however not alone in this on-going and self-conscious effort to move beyond colonial mentality and archives. Innumerable works by African(ist) scholars have sought to bring into focus the need to “return to the source” in order to adequately explicate the African experience in letters and conceptualization. Colonial distortions of facts aside, the psychological implications of depending on the very “agency” of domination to assert Africanness (another term that is no longer reflective of belonging but problematized within varying identitarian and ideological convictions or negations) are not only damaging but raise fundamental questions regarding patrimony and power. Aimé Césaire could not have been more direct when he surmises in Discourse on Colonialism that the relationship between the colonized and the colonizer can only be conflictual. By its very definition, agency is a process that serves as a medium of activating change. Any postcolonial theory that articulates the subject on the surface without cultural and critical specificities runs the risk of facilitating some form of mental recolonization. And this is why Andrew Apter’s Beyond Words: Discourse and Critical Agency in Africa should be welcomed.
Although still anchored on anthropological orientation and theoretical sophistication of previous seminal works, namely, Black Critics and Kings (1992) and The Pan-African Nation (2005), Beyond Words boldly injects an innovative critical vista into the discourse on Africa by a sensitive and informed cultural studies scholar. In proposing to transcend Africa’s colonial past through a focus on ethnographic practice that takes socio-political contexts into paramount account, Apter advances a critical model in which the agency or thought is indigenous as opposed to the colonial. From ritual performances to the centrality of the panegyric in political discourse, Beyond Words transcends traditional anthropology’s “colonial” orientation, by using praise poems and African cosmology to re-read African thought system in a trans-disciplinarily constructed and indigenously rooted frame. In six cogent chapters, Apter goes beyond a modest collection of essays per se, but offers something more systematically defensive in the sense of how “critical agency in Africa opposes the very conditions in which Africa is pathologized and the mechanisms by which the “Dark Continent” is continually reinscribed” (ix). Theoretically grounded and culturally provocative as his previous works are, Apter’s Beyond Words provides a classic and much desirable interfacial text between anthropology, cultural studies, and critical theory.
Likewise, Beyond Words testifies to an effort to present African culture as a speech act that derives its nourishment from local, ritualized, and political languages in order to engage the global without any trepidation or inferiority complex. Whether its approach is recasting ethnophilosopy as engaged by V. Y. Mudimbe and Paulin Houtondji, revisiting Tswana-Zulu-Xhosa praise poetry as political criticism, establishing ambivalent connections between Swazi praise and insult, invoking the gendered nature of Yoruba songs of abuse, or revisiting Dogon comological system as symbolic and oppositional discourse, its central argument lies in what the author calls the “relationship of Africanist anthropology and empire” as a measure to not only indigenize colonial culture but challenge it using African frame of reference and knowledge system. It is quite refreshing to read this book and even question the “Africanist-ness” of the author for one hears the voice of an acculturated anthropologist in the positive sense.
When Apter states, “what is hidden is philosophical” (17), “Does not this most “radical” of critical positions in fact recapitulate the logic of colonial conquest—the negation of the other by a magisterial discourse that masquerades as its antithesis?” (30), “praises are the expression of public opinion and provide an effective means of social control” (39), “female elders are honored and feared for their secret knowledge and hidden self-contained powers” (70), and “what is interesting anthropologically is how the very decolonization of cultural tradition based on the rejection of imperialism proclaimed by FESTAC involved the nationalization of colonial tradition by the postcolonial state” (146), he departs from the traditional Western/colonial scholarship that was imposed on African studies by subjecting that same approach to rigorous critique through practical and contextual application.
In sum, Beyond Words further contributes to the decolonization of Africanist scholarship and should be a welcome addition to emerging critical interventions on contemporary cultural studies. I would have loved to see some references to North Africa and East Africa to provide a truly representative treatise about African critical agency, but with every work, the scope cannot be as exhaustive and representative as desirable. Andrew Apter has demonstrated his mastery by focusing on areas of African experience where the oral tradition may be said to be more pronounced.Niyi Afolabi
University of Massachusetts at Amherst