Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Excerpt from Handel Kashope Wrights essay "Editorial: notes on the (im)possibility of articulating continental African identity"

As I sit here (hungry) in my building waiting for my late night class and trying to finish up a midterm presentation, I come across this essay, which I will excerpt here: "Editorial: notes on the (im)possibility of articulating continental African identity" by Handel Kashope Wright, from Critical Arts, pub date 1 July 02. I intend to quote from this at some point. I like how he concisely notes the importance of the ideas found in poststructuralist theory, while pointing out that these ideas have long been a part of certain African philosophies, in this case Esu-Elegbara. I try to make this point briefly in my MA thesis, using Henry Louis Gates, etc, but he does it much more elegantly than I do.

I'm posting it here because I think it is less likely to get lost on my blog than if I email it to myself, but if anyone else finds it useful, bismillah. See the excerpt below:

Fifth, I am interested in the application of contemporary European theoretical frameworks (sometimes collectively referred to as 'the posts'), (post-)Lacanian psychoanaltic, postmodernist and, especially, poststructuralist theory, to our understanding of African identity. For example, identity (including African identity) is best thought of not as singular, whole and given but rather in Lacanian influenced psychoanalytic theory terms, as a series of identifications come to life (Butler, 1990, 1993; Fuss, 1995). Thus, if we think of identity as whole and singular, it would appear that given the many popular and high culture, leftist and capitalist, western and African elements it supposedly contains, 'raray boy' identity as Abdullah articulates it, is both unlikely and untenable in its complexity and multiple self contradictions. However, 'raray boy' identity becomes both viable and comprehensible when we consider identity as a series of identifications come to life and, even more specifically, Fuss's (1995) assertion that "identification travels a double current, allowing for the possibility of multiple and contradictory identifications coexisting in the subject at the same time" (p. 34).

It bears pointing out that my interest is not in merely imposing poststructualism on Africa as a fully formed, hermetically sealed western theoretical discourse. Even as I turn to poststructuralism, I am guided by Soyinka's admonishment that Africans not simply embrace western ideologies and theoretical frameworks so fully and enthusiastically that we not even stop to consider whether the messages of such ideologies might already be present in African gnosis and worldviews. As he put it, "Like his religious counterpart, the new [African] ideologue has never stopped to consider whether or not the universal verities of his new doctrine are already contained in, or can be elicited from the world-view and social structures of his own people" (Soyinka, 1976, p. xii). Taking Soyinka's admonishment seriously and combining it with my present preference for ambivalence, I believe it is useful to hold poststructuralism influenced ambivalence not only about established constructions of and approaches to African identity but even about taken for granted constructions of poststructuralism itself. Thus, rather than merely imposing a purely EuroAmerican conception of poststructuralism on African identity, I have identified ways in which the nature and function of the Yoruba deity Esu-Elegbara, can be considered poststructuralist since it already contains many elements and characteristics of what has come to be labelled in European theory as poststructuralist thought.

Esu is both an aspect of and a pointer to the politics of theory and theorisation (especially the link between language, meaning and theory). According to Henry Louis Gates (1988) the Fon of Benin refer to Legba as "'the divine linguist', he who speaks all languages, he who interprets the alphabet of Mawu to man and to the gods" (p. 7). Gates goes further in asserting that "Esu is the indigenous black metaphor for the literary critic" (p. 9). I go further still in (re)conceptualizing Esu as 'the original poststructuralist' because Esu is the epitome and embodiment of indeterminacy and multiplicity of meaning. Esu is represented sometimes as a male figure, sometimes as a female figure, sometimes as a paired figure (male and female) and sometimes as an androgynous figure. S/he walks with a limp because s/he has one foot in the world of the gods and the other on earth. In appearance, therefore, Esu draws attention to yet obfuscates and transcends gender and (dis)ability. Esu's odus (sacred verses) are the manifestation of Derrida's notion of differance (Derrida, 1976, 1986; Harvey, 1986), not in writing but in speech. With Esu meaning is constantly differing and ultimate meaning is perpetually deferred.

Esu makes the will of the gods known to humans by communicating it through the oracle of Ifa in a series of fixed, formal versed texts. As Gates (1988) points out, the meaning of these texts are "lushly metaphorical, ambiguous, and enigmatic, function[ing] as riddles which the propriate must decipher and apply as appropriate to his or her own quandary" (p. 10). In other words, then, Esu deals with formal language, metaphoric language, language in which meaning is always expressed in riddles to which there are never fixed, correct solutions. There is never a fixed ultimate meaning to Esu's poems, only specific attempts made by specific individuals to pin meaning contingently and fleetingly. And even then, meaning is fixed only as it relates to specific propriators and their specific situations. The oracle Ifa is a metaphor for text and Esu is a metaphor for the interpretation of texts (or more accurately, the impossibility of single, final interpretation of texts). Esu's signs are the antithesis of closure: s/he gives us a fixed signifier and watches us postpone meaning as we scramble to select from an endless number of signifieds that one meaning that has relevance for us and our specific situation.

It can be inferred, even from the very brief explication above, that the appropriation of Esu as poststructuralist theoretical category has considerable potential for exploring and articulating African identity. At the same time, such an appropriation undertakes what I consider a very necessary aspect of work on poststructuralism, namely the challenge of poststructuralism itself. It is rather ironic that while 'the posts' have contributed greatly to exposing the limitations and indeed dangers of Western thought, grand narratives and essentialist concepts and categories (Fuss, 1989; Spivak, 1990, 1993), they appear to have passed from being incisive tools of deconstruction and critique that (among other things) welcome the input of the West's others to becoming new EuroAmerican grand narratives themselves.


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