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Postcolonial Hauntologies: African Women's Discourses of the Female Body

Postcolonial Hauntologies: African Women's Discourses of the Female Body

by Ayo A. Coly
Postcolonial Hauntologies: African Women's Discourses of the Female Body

Postcolonial Hauntologies: African Women's Discourses of the Female Body

by Ayo A. Coly


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Postcolonial Hauntologies is an interdisciplinary and comparative analysis of critical, literary, visual, and performance texts by women from different parts of Africa. While contemporary critical thought and feminist theory have largely integrated the sexual female body into their disciplines, colonial representations of African women’s sexuality “haunt” contemporary postcolonial African scholarship which—by maintaining a culture of avoidance about women’s sexuality—generates a discursive conscription that ultimately holds the female body hostage. Ayo A. Coly employs the concept of “hauntology” and “ghostly matters” to formulate an explicative framework in which to examine postcolonial silences surrounding the African female body as well as a theoretical framework for discerning the elusive and cautious presences of female sexuality in the texts of African women.
In illuminating the pervasive silence about the sexual female body in postcolonial African scholarship, Postcolonial Hauntologies challenges hostile responses to critical and artistic voices that suggest the African female body represents sacred ideological-discursive ground on which one treads carefully, if at all. Coly demonstrates how “ghosts” from the colonial past are countered by discursive engagements with explicit representations of women’s sexuality and bodies that emphasize African women’s power and autonomy.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496214874
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 06/01/2019
Series: Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 252
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Ayo A. Coly is an associate professor of comparative literature and African studies at Dartmouth College. She is the author of The Pull of Postcolonial Nationhood: Gender and Migration in Francophone African Literatures.

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The African Female Body

From Colonial Inscription to Postcolonial Conscription

In 2009 controversy erupted in the West African nation of Senegal over an official state monument. The so-called Monument de la Renaissance Africaine (fig. 4) depicts a couple and their male baby in various stages of undress. The public outrage converged on the partially unclothed female body while the significantly more exposed male body remained a non-issue. The high visibility of the Renaissance woman versus the invisibility of her male counterpart evinces the sexual politics behind the visibility and visuality of the body in postcolonial Africa. Some relatively recent examples on the continent substantiate the heightened and vulnerable visibility of African female bodies. In 2008 the government of Uganda called for a miniskirt ban. The ban followed a dress code for women at the University of Makerere, the country's main university. The same year, the Nigerian Senate considered a nudity bill against improperly dressed women. These types of postcolonial African preoccupations with the female body lend themselves most immediately to a feminist reading. They indeed convene the predictable and sometimes pathologizing interpretive grid of African tensions between tradition and modernity, globalization and postcolonial African patriarchal anxieties, or again African societal uneasiness with the growing socioeconomic autonomy of women. The routine public floggings of insufficiently covered women, nowadays a characteristic of the socio-visual iconography and daily theatricality of many postcolonial African cities, certainly support this feminist line of analysis. So do the marches and online protest campaigns by young African women in 2013–15 against this dress-policing culture. Hashtag campaigns such as #SavetheMiniSkirt, #StripMeNot, #MyDressMyChoice in 2014 and protest banners such as "My body, my money, my closet, my rules" during a February 2014 demonstration in Kampala all point fingers at a threatened and insecure patriarchy.1

Having said this, this chapter argues for an alternative if not counterintuitive interpretation that strays away from gender as an analytical entry point to these postcolonial African preoccupations with the female body. I have found it more insightful to consider these investments in having African women properly clothed alongside the following concurrences: the absence of the sexual female body in postcolonial Africanist scholarship, including in African gender studies and feminist thought; the scarce and elusive occurrences of the sexual female body in postcolonial African arts and literary texts; the postcolonial African touchiness about Western discussions of African female bodies, from the sore topic of female circumcision to representations of the African female body by non-African artists and the 2009 gender testing of South African runner Caster Semenya by the International Olympic Committee. How do we think together the strict dress codes for women and the austere codes for representing the female body? How do we conceptualize the two parallel sets of codes as interrelated gestures of clothing African womanhood and enactments of a postcolonial discursive conscription of the African female body? What theoretical insights can we gain from such an analytical juxtaposition?

In this chapter I articulate a nongender-centric interpretive framework that teases out the latent colonial interlocutors of postcolonial African discourses of the female body, attends to the way the African female body encodes the coloniality of discursive categories and conventions, and explains how colonial discourses of the African female body came to haunt postcolonial African discourses. In making a case for the discursive trajectory of the African female body from colonial inscription to postcolonial conscription, I am mostly interested in teasing out the African female body as a colonially inherited narrative convention and a rhetorical element in discourses about Africa. Inarguably the scholarship of Ifi Amadiume(1987), Oyeronke Oyewumi (1997, 2015), and Maria Lugones (2007, 2010) on the "coloniality of gender" (Lugones 2010) offers an important frame of analysis for colonial and postcolonial discourses of the African female body. But in thinking about postcolonial African discourses of the female body in terms of the coloniality of discursive conventions, I have a specific endeavor to attend to the semiotic character of the figure of woman in these discourses. My approach also identifies the African female body as an archive for the study of colonial and postcolonial discourses. This chapter accordingly maps the production of the African female body as a privileged rhetorical element of both colonial and postcolonial discourses about Africa. The chapter draws theoretical underpinnings for my core argument that the colonial statement of the grotesque and hypersexual African female body haunts postcolonial African discourses.

Specters of Colonialism: The Coming into Being of Hauntologies

In theorizing the female body as passage and not destination, instrument and not target, I am repurposing two seminal readings of the figure of the native woman in the discourses of colonialism and anticolonial nationalism. Frantz Fanon's "Algeria Unveiled" (1965) and Lata Mani's "Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India" (1987) are useful in different and related ways. A conjoined reading of the two texts helps illustrate the peripherality of gender in some postcolonial discourses of the female body. Mani's demonstration that tradition, and not women, was at stake in the debates on sati (widow immolation) in colonial India exemplifies the type of nongender-centric approach to discourses of the female body that I am pursuing. Mani goes looking for women in the debates on sati and does not find them. Instead, she finds that colonial and anticolonial narratives seize the native woman as a billboard for statements about cultural values, modernity, tradition, and progress. It is this absent presence of women, their invisible visibility, in discourses that invoke women that this chapter seeks to elucidate.

Next consider Frantz Fanon's reading of the function of the Algerian female body in the battle over the veil in colonial Algeria. Feminist critiques of Fanon have questioned his fetishistic approach to the Algerian female body and his metonymic association of the Algerian woman with the veil and Algeria. Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting (1997) has taken these feminist critiques to task for engaging in wholesale dismissals of Fanon. Her point that feminist criticism can gain insights from new engagements with Fanon guides my own recuperation of Fanon. Recuperating the Fanon of "Algeria Unveiled" for the purpose of my argument about the conscription of the African female body by postcolonial African discourses, I am struck by the persistent failure of feminist critiques of "Algeria Unveiled" to note that at the onset of his essay Fanon goes to great length to indicate that the essay concerns itself with the way colonialism determines the form and content of anticolonial resistance. Fanon writes that "on the level of the individuals the colonial strategy of destructuring Algerian society very quickly came to assign a prominent place to the Algerian woman. The colonialist's relentlessness, his methods of struggle were bound to give rise to reactionary forms of behavior on the part of the colonized. ... We here recognize one of the laws of the psychology of colonization. In an initial phase, it is the actions, the plans of the occupier that determine the centers of resistance around which a people's will to survive becomes organized" (1965, 46–47). In other words, colonialism sets the terms of the debate by cornering anticolonial nationalists into the reactionary position of respondents to colonial discourses. Fanon's much-critiqued notion of an "unveiled Algeria" magnifies the coloniality of the Algerian woman, including the metonymic association of the Algerian woman with Algeria.

The first segment of "Algeria Unveiled," often overlooked by critiques, serves my theorization of the un/clothed black African female body. The segment describes the coming into being of the un/veiled Algerian woman as a discursive gesture, traced by colonial discourses and inevitably confirmed by the discourses of anticolonial nationalism. Fanon teaches how colonialism interpellates resistance into its frameworks and compels anticolonial nationalist discourses to sustain the narrative grammar of colonialism. Fanon resonates in Edward Said's observation that the discourses of anticolonial nationalism end up borrowing the binary logic and categories of thought of colonial discourses because the former are "fatally limited" by their antagonist position vis-à-vis colonial discourses (Said 1988, 14). Mani's conclusion that women were not subjects, nor were they objects, in the debates on sati retrospectively lends analytical support to Fanon by spelling out the understated thesis in Fanon that the debate about the veiled Algerian woman was not about Algerian women. Concurrently Fanon helps elucidate that the absent presence of the native woman in colonial and anticolonial discourses obeys the discursive conventions introduced by colonialism and sustained by the discourses of anticolonial nationalism. While Fanon's argument pertained specifically to the moment of anticolonial nationalism, Fanon nonetheless helps us understand how the colonial continues to live on in the timescape of the postcolonial. Indeed, my proposition in this book that the African female body in postcolonial African discourses is a rhetorical category inherited from colonial discourses extends the insights of Fanon into the postcolonial.

Reading Fanon by way of Jacques Derrida's proposition in Specters of Marx (1994) that the specter or the past is an obligatory inheritance, the colonial rhetorical category is a colonial inheritance that postcolonial discourses could arguably not refuse. According to Derrida, even the most reactionary of discourses are no more than "interpretations of the structure of inheritance" (1994, 68), and "a radicalization is always indebted to the very thing it radicalizes" (116). This obligatory inheritance allows the colonial to spectralize itself in the postcolonial and then live on as haunting presence in the postcolonial. In that regard the postcolonial is what Derrida calls a "hauntology," meaning a timescape where the living present plays host to a nonliving present. In my reading of the fraught postcolonial African engagements with the female body, the African female body is at once a colonial hauntology, by virtue of being saturated by colonial discourses to the point of blurring into ghostliness, and a vector and anchor of postcolonial hauntology, by virtue of being a site where colonial specters traverse into and impinge on the living postcolonial present.

In Specters of Marx the ghost of Hamlet's father and the enduring legacies of Karl Marx despite the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 are fodder for the notion of "hauntology," which describes the spectral presence of the past and future in the present and the ensuing "non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present" (Derrida 1994, xviii). The specter is both the past that haunts the present and the probable future to come that also haunts the present. Derrida pursues here his logic of deconstruction. He reprises his notion of the trace, the residual debris of absent signifiers, that always sabotages movements of negation and forces deconstruction to sustain the very structure that it is unraveling. In Specters of Marx Derrida refigures the trace as a specter that systemically inscribes past and absent enunciations into new utterances. Derrida enjoins us not to exorcise specters but rather to pursue hauntology, which consists in extending hospitality to specters and learning to live with specters in order to learn from them.

Fanon's model of hauntology importantly amends Derrida's in that both the oppositional relationship between the colonial and the anticolonial and the prospective situation of rupture from the colonial that the postcolonial strives to be invest a different meaning, resonance, and function to colonial specters. From a Fanonian perspective, hauntology spells the condemnation of the antagonist postcolonial subject to always return to the colonial scene, to always speak from and to the colonial scene, and to define herself or himself against, through, and thus from the colonial scene. Likewise, Valentin Mudimbe (1988) and Achille Mbembe (2001) have noted postcolonial African discourses' inevitable acknowledgment of colonial discourses about Africa. Mudimbe explains that the elsewhereness of Africa's gnosis always-already ghosts postcolonial African discursive acts. And in Mbembe's oft-cited words, "There in all its closed glory, is the prior discourse against which any comment by an African about Africa is deployed. There is the language that every comment by an African about Africa must endlessly eradicate, validate, or ignore, often to his/her cost, the ordeal whose erratic fulfillment many Africans have spent their lives trying to prevent" (2001, 5). Hauntology, as a chronic inability to break away from the colonial scene or think oneself outside of the colonial, becomes here a mechanism that repeatedly chains postcolonial subjectivities back to the colonial scene. The rhetorical category of the female body in postcolonial African discourses is a colonial scene, hence my earlier argument that the African female body in postcolonial African discourses is at once a colonial hauntology and a vector and anchor of postcolonial hauntology.

Hauntology is a tragedy. To be haunted by colonial specters means to be forced to relive the violence of colonialism. Hauntology prolongs the trauma of colonialism. In a postcolonial context hauntology is also a manifestation of the lingering violence of colonialism, the subjection of formerly colonized communities to new forms of colonialism and the apprehensive alertness of these communities to future forms of colonialism. Avery Gordon explains that to be haunted in this manner means to exist in "an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known, sometimes very directly, sometimes more obliquely" (1997, 16). Like Derrida, Gordon advocates a politics of living with and learning from specters. But hers is a socially activist hauntology that seeks to be attentive to the insidious operations of hegemony. Among these operations is the propensity of hegemony to haunt by distilling fear, mass produce socially invisible or spectral others, and camouflage itself so that it can work undetected.

In Ghostly Matters (1997), Gordon builds on Derrida's universalist and generalist definition of spectrality to provide a context-attentive theorization of hauntology that counterpoints Derrida's tentatively myopic theorization of hauntology. Derrida theorizes hauntology from the specters of figures of authority such as Marx and King Hamlet. He mentions, but only to gloss over, the ghosts of victims of systems of oppression and the spectrality of socially invisible figures. For her part Gordon focuses on transatlantic slavery and political state terrorism in Latin America. In so doing she is able to attend to haunting as an individual and community's lived experience of unacknowledged or supposedly past systems of oppression such as state terrorism, racial capitalism, and slavery. Haunting here, as in the postcolonial contexts I describe, constitutes a "sociopolitical-psychological state" that manifests a "repressed or unresolved social violence" and calls attention toward a "something-to-be-done" (Gordon 1997, 16). This "something-to-bedone" ranges from social activism to political action and "re-narrativization" (3). As a site of postcolonial hauntology the African female body becomes a site of this "something-to-be-done" and a site of re-narrativization. As a site the female body, and eventually the postcolonial woman, becomes a ghostly figure. One already finds this reading of the native woman as a ghostly presence in Lata Mani's reading of the absent presence of women in the battle over the sati in colonial India and in Fanon's analysis of the subsuming of the Algerian woman under the veil.

To return to the attempts to police women's dress detailed at the beginning of this chapter, I am not proposing that they do not speak of patriarchal and masculinist anxieties. I am however suggesting that gender-centric analyses, by falling into the feminist logic of the always-already policed female body in patria, are likely to miss the nongender stakes of these preoccupations with women's dress. Such approaches also overinflate postcolonial African patriarchal and masculinist anxieties. Yet patriarchal anxieties are hardly the core organizing principle of these preoccupations. Instead I argue that these preoccupations predate patriarchal anxieties. Patriarchal anxieties have caught up with and grafted themselves onto a preexisting postcolonial African preoccupation with the female body. The organizing principle of these preoccupations is what I describe as a postcolonial African angst over the female body, which threads through and together the policing of women's dress and the unspoken culture of scholarly and artistic silence about the sexual African female body. Both forms of engagement with the female body enact a gesture of clothing the female body in response to its unclothing by colonial discourses. Both forms of engagement with the female body sustain the rhetorical deployment of the African female body in colonial discourses about Africa. Finally, both forms of engagements with the female body are haunted by colonial discourses of the African female body. As a result, these postcolonial engagements produce the female body as a timescape in which the postcolonial present is bound in conversation with the colonial past, the past overwhelms the present, and, following Derrida, the living postcolonial present becomes noncontemporaneous with itself. Concurrently these postcolonial engagements that live in apprehension of the colonial statement of the grotesque and hypersexual African female body saturate the African female body with a postcolonial angst about the colonial. These engagements subsequently live in apprehension of the African female body. The African female body comes to represent a colonial hauntology by being made to play host to postcolonial anxieties about both the colonial statement of the African female body and the potential afterlife of the colonial statement in the living postcolonial present.


Excerpted from "Postcolonial Hauntologies"
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
1. The African Female Body: From Colonial Inscription to Postcolonial Conscription,
2. Haunted Silences: African Feminist Criticism and the Specter of Sarah Baartman,
3. Spectral Female Sexualities: The Politics of Sexual Pleasure in Women's Literatures,
4. Subversive and Pedagogical Hauntologies: The Unclothed Female Body in Visual and Performance Arts,
5. Laying Specters to Rest? On Bringing Sarah Baartman Home,

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