Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics

Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics

by Akinwumi Adesokan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253223456
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/21/2011
Series: African Expressive Cultures Series
Pages: 252
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Akin Adesokan is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University Bloomington and author of the novel Roots in the Sky. His writings have appeared in Screen, Textual Practice, Chimurenga, and Research in African Literatures.

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Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics

By Akin Adesokan

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2011 Akin Adesokan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35679-6


C. L. R. James Sees the World Steadily

Commenting on the writings of a cricket critic named Neville Cardus, C. L. R. James, the Trinidadian/black British writer, political activist, and theorist, makes a statement that is as true of James himself as it is of Cardus: "He says the same in more than one place" (James 1983, 195). This declaration that a piece of writing is only one instance of a vast and consistent reworking of themes and ideas also found elsewhere in his works is a succinct way of describing integration, the primary method in James's writings, which I have taken as a model in this book. In this chapter I use the occasion of "Toward the Seventh: The Pan-African Congress—Past, Present and Future," an essay James wrote in 1976, to elaborate on this method and to make three related claims. First, I claim that in spite of the diverse artistic, political, and cultural contexts of his literary output (in a career that spanned much of the twentieth century), James developed a style which he used to bring together ideas from different, often conflicting, political impulses and traditions. Second, given his personal and political choices, James's work represents a promising, though not entirely successful, integration of the two putatively antagonistic processes of socialist tricontinentalism and neoliberal cosmopolitanism. Third, although "Toward the Seventh" apparently concerns itself specifically with African realities, James's analysis and the topic's historical context indicate that Pan-Africanism goes beyond Africa, pertaining to questions of social justice across the world. In the spirit of this Jamesian method, I read the thematic, stylistic, and theoretical aspects of the 1976 essay in conjunction with a number of texts that say the same thing in other places.

Such a reading entails a constant shuttle between the essay "Toward the Seventh" and several other texts—both full-length books and shorter essays—in which the theoretical and stylistic patterns of integration are in view as James works toward the central questions of his political thought. "Toward the Seventh" is a local example of integration, but that example is distilled from the other books and essays, which provide the occasion for the revision of "the theory" (of Marxist political analysis) that is presented in a condensed, integrated form in the essay. If this sounds rather like a dog chasing his own tail, the fact is that James himself describes how he arrived at this method. But I will come to that description shortly, and appropriately as a way of turning to the books.

The proposition that James works toward an integral idea of human culture implies that his oeuvre is the basis of this effort. Though he succinctly explores the idea of integration in American Civilization (1993), his study of cultural developments in the United States after the Second World War, the idea saturates his writings around the period of his break with Trotskyist politics in the early 1940s. I focus here, therefore, especially on the books whose conception and actual writing—if not publication—are tied to the political crisis surrounding that break, which he describes directly in his book on cricket:

In 1940 came a crisis in my political life. I rejected the Trotskyist version of Marxism and set about to re-examine and reorganize my view of the world, which was (and remains) essentially a political one. It took more than ten years, but by 1952 I once more felt my feet on solid ground, and in consequence I planned a series of books. The first was published in 1953, a critical study of the writings of Herman Melville as a mirror of our age, and the second is this book on cricket. (1983, 19)

The remaining books in the plan are American Civilization (drafted in 1950 but published posthumously in 1993) and Notes on Dialectics (1980; originally published in 1948). The various essays collected in his selected writings (1980–1984) series, such as At the Rendezvous of Victory and The Future in the Present, C. L. R. James on the "Negro Question" (1996a), and Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977a) are also part of the plan, although this time in a dialectical sense.

Recent scholarly writings on James's life and work have focused on the cultural as well as the political conditions that defined him as a writer, and although much of this scholarship is invested in registering James's role in shaping contemporary cultural theory, there is hardly any agreement on the direct political objective of that role. There are three main currents in the scholarship. The first current sees James as an inspiration for a liberatory cultural praxis that is eminently useful for progressive and transformative multiculturalism (Brennan 1997; Farred 2003, 1996; Grimshaw 1996, 1991; McLemee 1996; Cudjoe and Cain 1995; Rosengarten 2008). Grimshaw, his former personal secretary, sees in James's work a dedicated effort to "explore and integrate all those elements essential to the complete understanding of a particular cultural activity" (1991, 34). Brennan specifically notes the stylistic "simplicity" of American Civilization, an approach "likely to be echoed by contemporary combative multiculturalism" (1997, 226). Rosengarten presents a very sympathetic account, perhaps the most comprehensive so far, of James's life and work in all their dimensions. The second current in the scholarship regards attempts to claim James for anti-imperialist politics as ideologically narrow and a disservice to the writer's capacious imagination and breadth of cultural affiliations (Dhondy 2001; Davies 1998; Said 1990). Said notes that, despite his affiliation with the antiimperialism of Frantz Fanon, Amílcar Cabral, and Walter Rodney, James "stood stubbornly for the Western heritage" (1990, 36). Davies deploys this judgment to argue that James distrusted the discourse and practice of Pan-Africanism "because [he] knew where it would lead" (1998, 145n43). For Dhondy, who, like Grimshaw, was James's personal assistant, he championed "the Western intellectual tradition as the direction and salvation of modernity and the world, including Africa" (2001, 168). Dhondy's conclusion is closer to the third current in the scholarship, the least developed but the most useful for my purposes, which is epitomized by Paul Buhle's characterization of James's attitude toward Pan-Africanism as "paradoxical" (Buhle 1994).

Though Dhondy argues that Pan-Africanism for James was a culmination of a career of anti-imperialism rather than a starting point, I will make it a point from which to advance a complementary proposition. James was committed to Pan-Africanism not as an exclusive idea that can be grasped only within the frame of black nationalism, whether in Africa, the United States, the Caribbean, or Western Europe, but as one of several revolutions of the twentieth century, with ramifications beyond the continent. In other words, the internationalist trajectory of the Pan-Africanist political practice cannot be totally separated from the manner in which the cultures of neoliberalism have penetrated different parts of the globe. James's encounter with Africa, in the form of either conceptual Pan-Africanism or the earlier concerns with political agitation and organization in England and the United States, is mediated by Marxism. What is original about James's method is its creative synthesis of apparent disparities in the historical and political forces of an epoch. Empiricism is implicit in this approach, but for James amassing facts is not a goal in itself. On the contrary, the method is aimed at social transformation, and (this explains his fascination with so-called mass culture) is motivated by the philosophical conviction that political legitimacy resides in the will of the people.

The two central conceptual impulses in James's writings, which constitute integration, are these: a steady and wholesome perspective on the world, and the alignment of the wishes of the one (the leader, the actor) with those of the many (the people or the audience). (There is a third, less central impulse, namely the use of the Aristotelian idea of drama to understand the flourishing of contemporary democracy.) They result as much from his Marxist method as from the aesthetic and cultural background of his colonial education. As he famously puts it, "Thackeray, not Marx, bears the heaviest responsibility for me" (James 1983, 39). They derive from the need to answer the question "What do men live by?" and its various reformulations. They are important to our understanding of what he is trying to achieve in "Toward the Seventh."

"Toward the Seventh" is the culmination of a long development of a political and theoretical perspective, written from the perspective of age and experience, and it encapsulates in substance and in style the approach that I have in mind. The essay's subject, the program of the much-anticipated Seventh Congress of the Pan-African movement, had equal relevance to the African continent, the Caribbean, and the United States. In fact, in 1976 James delivered it as an address in Dakar, Senegal, and in Washington, D.C., and also published it as part of a pamphlet in Jamaica. In it, he argues that a socially relevant Pan-African movement depends on a set of prescient critiques: that the nation-state is no longer a useful basis for political solidarity in the form that the concerns of Pan-Africanism are to be posed; that bourgeois politics and cultural elitism are impediments to social transformation; and that women, the poor, and the young are to be the goal as well as the subject of the changes envisaged. Indeed, in true integrated fashion, the three critiques are related, in the same way that, he tells us right near the beginning, "to pose the Seventh Pan-African Congress ... requires a steady view of the first six" (James 1984b, 238). This explains James's view of history as nonlinear, the idea of the future in the present: the prospectus calls for a retrospective, and this is evident in the essay's title.

It is important to note that James's critiques are motivated by activist politics. In the early 1970s, responding to political developments on the continent (in South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea Bissau), James and a few others had authored a document titled "The Call" (244), arguing for the convening of the Sixth Pan-African Congress. "The Call" then served as the basis for the wide consultations on which he embarked, trying to garner support for the congress, which was held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1974. He advances the prospective argument in "Toward the Seventh" to address the shortcomings of that congress. He begins on a historical note, reviewing a number of attempts that "those who were in charge of society" made to understand the social and moral crisis of capitalism as typified by the two world wars. The West "wanted to give people some ideas that the barbarism and degradation [in] which World War I had stuck Western civilization should not be considered inevitable" (James 1984b, 236). Books by H. G. Wells, Arnold Toynbee, and Kenneth Clark all reflected on the direction of human society; Clark also developed a television miniseries from his work. But each of these attempts fell short of expectations, the proof being in the constant return to the drawing board as yet another intellectual produced another book.

James does not spend time analyzing what these different historical accounts got wrong. He dismisses each out of hand: within twenty-five years of Wells's conclusion that "if we went along with good hearts and clear minds we would go some way" from the bestiality of the First World War there was an even more brutal second World War; Toynbee's thesis that history, like Christianity, would spring out of nowhere was not satisfying; Clark glibly submitted that "we have no idea where we are going," and quoted lines from W. B. Yeats's "Second Coming" into the bargain. There is a blithe, rather mocking, tone to James's dismissal of these writers ("Now, friends, I am not making jokes" [237]). Yet he is at pains to convey that "the people who rule the world" do not have solid ideas of its direction: "I have been thinking that for thirty or forty years, thinking that they don't know what they are doing, where they are going. But to hear them say it is a matter, I think, of importance. If any of you have different ideas, please remember that although you may think that things are going well enough, know that those who are in charge of the world don't think so, and that is very important" (237–238).

James prefaces his discussion of Pan-Africanism with a serial reading of a few of the authors' works for both thematic and stylistic reasons. In order to discuss his topic productively, he first has to place it in context, to establish what he calls "the kind of attitude we should have in thinking about such a subject [the Pan-African Congress] at this time." He follows the same approach in a talk about the life and times of his friend and late collaborator George Padmore, when he says, "I want to talk about George Padmore, and I am going to begin by talking about our early life in the Caribbean" (1984c, 251). Stylistically, it is typical of James to open with a preface, usually of quotations from an author or a set of seemingly dissimilar authors. We see examples of this in his deployment of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Aimé Césaire at the beginning of Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (1977a, 18—25) and of Alexis de Tocqueville and Walt Whitman in American Civilization (1993, 43—45, 58—66). And such quotation is not limited to beginnings; James almost always closes with similar quotations. The concluding chapters of Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution feature extensive passages from the writings of Vladimir Lenin and Julius Nyerere, while "Toward the Seventh" ends with extracts from George Lamming's Seasons of Adventure and Natives of My Person. However, his quotation is condensed in "Toward the Seventh," and Timothy Brennan, in At Home in the World, described this Jamesian style as "simplicity," that is, an "extemporaneous discussion, matched up with extensive quotations from popular magazines and books, [an approach] likely to be echoed by contemporary combative multiculturalism" (Brennan 1997, 226).

The approach begins with a prolegomenon, an outline reviewing the context of the subject at hand, followed by a brief critique. Then the subject itself is presented, but only after James has offered a steady view of the historical paths taken to bring the subject about. This part is presented very differently from the prolegomenon. Then, as the subject proper is developed and discussed, into it are mixed aspects of the outline, in a process that can be described as dialectical. In the passage from Beyond a Boundary quoted earlier, in which he outlines his planned series of books, James describes the thematic dimension of his method; in Notes on Dialectics he outlines its stylistic dimension:

You are sure of the end only when you can trace the thing stage by stage, the dialectical development accounting for all the major historical facts. Sometimes you can work backwards ... Over and over again I have to look for an important missing link or links. If I cannot find them, I have to give up the theses and find another. If you read how Marx wrote Capital you will see he wrote it, a draft, then reorganized that. He was searching for the logical movement which embraced all the facts. (1980, 204)

Contextualizing the Pan-African movement within a critique of the liberal historical imagination in the West turns out to be a dialectical procedure. Of course, James has already made a joke of Clark's broadside attack on Marxism ("that's why they don't know where they are going, because marxism [sic ] has not told them" [James 1984b, 237]). But he also wishes to situate the 1900 convening of the first Pan-African Congress in London, by Sylvester Williams, in relation to similar events all over the world: "There were also many 'Pan' things beginning. There was Pan-Slavism and Pan-Arabism and so on ... people were dissatisfied with the existing structure and the development of society, and they were searching for new roads and new ways" (238). In this context, the attempts at soul-searching that Wells and his successors embarked on after 1918 seem like complacent acts of navel-gazing which fail to take account of the world outside of Western Europe and North America.


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Table of Contents


Introduction: Generic Transformations at the Crossroads of Capital
1. C. L. R. James Sees the World Steadily
2. Fitful Decolonization: Xala and the Poetics of Double Fetishism
3. Tunde Kelani's Nollywood: Aesthetics of Exhortation
4. Jean-Pierre Bekolo and the Challenges of Aesthetic Populism
5. Imaginary Citizenship: Caryl Phillips's Atlantic World
6. Spirits of Bandung: A Sarcastic Subject Writes to Empire
Conclusion: Being African in the World

List of References

What People are Saying About This

Long Island University - Jonathan Haynes

This book is a significant intervention in debates on Postcolonialism and a model of intellectual ambition in its constant crossing of disciplinary and generic boundaries.

Cornell University - Grant Farred

Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics thinks politics, art, aesthetics, modes of media production, and ideas about home, always dynamically, through the lens of expatriation. The book offers a necessary alternative to 'globalization' and lends 'postcoloniality' a shot in the critical and theoretical arm. It not only brings together various postcolonial locales (the Caribbean, the Asian subcontinent, Africa, the diaspora), but enacts how they should be thought together.

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