Global Pyrotechnics and Aesthetics of African Literature

Lekan Oyegoke

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The twentieth century was a period that found a nursery-bed for a large-scale conversion of radical ideology into praxis and gave birth to an Iron Curtain; a period that sprung the schism between systems of linguistic signs and concepts upon the academic world as practice and oversaw an ideational split in the visceral symbioses internal to literary study numinously to obtain self-reflexive self-defining self-sustaining “theory” from the orthodoxy of “literary theory and criticism”; an era of unprecedented vistas erupting from the immensity of human mind and power of the imagination culminating in an art of “thinking about thinking” with peculiar resultant linguistic fireworks from a dense technologically shrunken space and new-fangled culture of universalism named globalisation and marked by alarmist characterising characteristic slogans such as “the author is dead”, “rereading English”, “revisionary rereading”, “literature against itself”, “a criticism of our own”,  “theory is dead”, etc. collateral to apocalyptic notions of an endless regress in language use and critical thinking, and an inversion of hierarchies, as well as a reification of scepticism on the wheels of flagrant subversion of conventional binaries in differential opposition oiled all and privileged by such conceptual lubricants as “différance”, “aporia”, “écriture” etc. This essay attempts a reflective engagement with some of the discursive flashpoints in the globalist linguistic aesthetic ratiocinating pyrotechnics of an “age of theory” as affecting especially the part of the African cultural experience labelled “African literature”.        

Keywords: aesthetic, discursive flashpoints, pyrotechnics, theory, vistas


It will not be impolitic to start this reflection on the groundswell of speculation in theory – of both a benign and a malignant order – in a postmodernist/post-postmodernist(?) era of wishful academic thinking by resorting to counters named signifiers and tropes with definitely infrequently sometimes evanescent determinate and at several other times indeterminate conceptual correlation, as modern linguistics avers. Theory as detachable from literary theory and criticism in the last six decades or so of the twenty-six odd centuries of formal literary study since the theorists of antiquity, Plato and Aristotle, and nicknamed “thinking about thinking”, “critical thinking”, or “literary thinking” constitutes a subject so vast it seems as borderless and limitless as space; and like space it seems subject to applications informed by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity – itself a subject of speculation and investigation and discovery that continually rejuvenates conceptually in defiance of Russian Formalist principle of automatisation: seeming rather to be permanently in a defamiliarization mode.

As with trying to navigate space, the grounds of speculation in theory starts out as a pretty subjective enterprise with regard to trying to find one’s bearing on the linguistic turf of signifiers as opposed to signifieds. The subjectivity of theory as praxis is compatible with the seeming seamlessness of the subject itself and the method of its speculation. To hack through the topic and subject of this discussion, if there is one, as the saying goes, is quite figuratively like contemplating a large expanse of water teeming with an assortment of marine life, say, fish that are embroiled in endless ideational and corporal Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest signifier/signified alignment however fleetingly. The figure may be envisaged as potentially cataclysmic and rather more threatening to denizens of the lake and the marine habitat should the said lake and trope be hit by a tsunami.

Theory is nothing if it is not a study in the bizarre and bewildering; a topic such as serves as a label for the ongoing reflection is probably characteristic and is only intended as a peg on which to hang sample swirling elusive discourse that, according to Jacques Derrida and his ilk, is subversive, runs counter to logic, and is not logocentric. In Derrida the radicalism of Saussurean linguistics in its ascription of arbitrariness to conventional binaries such as sign and concept is upgraded to a point that leaves language without transcendental presence: which by extension becomes a characteristic feature of discourse where discourse is a label for all systems of signs in nature and culture and is not limited to language in its conventional sense. The position does not foreclose a reading strategy that attempts to unravel the string of signifiers to which the rest of the discussion only serves as an extended illusionary caption: as scholars the likes of M.H. Abrams, Jonathan Culler, Frank Kermode, have pointed out, even the circuitous and contradictory can tellingly characterise theory in practice (critical thinking, as opposed to literary theory and criticism) in ways that appear more strident than do the conventional assumptions about the role of ambiguity in poetic discourse canvassed by Russian Formalism and Anglo-American New Criticism prior to the advent of French Structuralism and the more profoundly controversial successor(s) to the latter.

For a start, it does seem a worthy exercise to attempt to gloss the restive peg and row of quivering signifiers of the discussion heading: “Global” in the topic wrestles in signification with ideas of universalism and the worldwide; in consideration, inclusive of the whole world and/or all peoples. “Pyrotechnics” comes unstuck in variant concepts as, first, having to do with “fireworks”; second, showy display in talk and other forms of discourse; third, a display of temper (The Chambers Dictionary).  “Aesthetics” is a word for a notional bag of principles, rules, criteria, etc. for conventional literary analysis precedent as well as post facto to formal literary criticism. “African literature” is signifier designating some nondescript cultural item that is puzzlingly and un-puzzlingly marked simultaneously by presence and absence and an apt illustration of the undecidability of the logos assumed by language use as argued by Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Louis Montrose, Barbara Johnson, Gayatri Spivak, and lots more acclaimed theorists from across the globe.

The twentieth century was a period that found a nursery-bed for a large-scale conversion of radical ideology into praxis and gave birth to an Iron Curtain; a period that sprung the schism between systems of linguistic signs and concepts upon the academic world as practice and oversaw an ideational split in the visceral symbioses internal to literary study numinously to obtain self-reflexive self-defining self-sustaining “theory” from the orthodoxy of “literary theory and criticism”; an era of unprecedented vistas erupting from the immensity of human mind and power of the imagination culminating in an art of “thinking about thinking” with peculiar resultant linguistic fireworks from a dense technologically shrunken space and new-fangled culture of universalism named globalisation and marked by alarmist characterising characteristic slogans such as “the author is dead”, “rereading English”, “revisionary rereading”, “literature against itself”, “a criticism of our own”,  “theory is dead”, etc. collateral to apocalyptic notions of an endless regress in language use and critical thinking, and an inversion of hierarchies, as well as a reification of scepticism on the wheels of flagrant subversion of conventional binaries in differential opposition oiled all and privileged by such conceptual lubricants as “différance”, “aporia”, “écriture” etc. This essay attempts a reflective engagement with some of the discursive flashpoints in the globalist linguistic aesthetic ratiocinating pyrotechnics of an “age of theory” as affecting especially the part of the African cultural experience labelled “African literature”.        

Global Pyrotechnics

In their interesting opening review of the condition of thinking about thinking in a write-up with the title “30@30: the future of literary thinking” Peter Boxall and Michael Jonik begin an engaging editorial task of speculating the prospects of what simply may be termed “theory” which some have thought of as an advance on conventional literary theory and criticism associated with literary study from the time of the thinkers and theorists of antiquity up until the early part of the twentieth century. Writing under the title “Introduction: the time is propitious” they take their bearing from 1987 and birthday of the acclaimed literary journal Textual Practice whose pioneer editor was Terrence Hawkes who in his inaugural editorial had made insightful remarks about the somewhat inauspicious academic climate of the times in regard to the launch of a new journal in that year, and conjointly in the same first volume of the journal in 1987 an appraisal of the times by Terry Eagleton:

These two interventions taken together suggest that literary thinking, over the last 30 years, has taken place in the midst of persistent decline, of a steady worsening of the conditions for critical inquiry. Hawkes launches a journal committed to interdisciplinary theoretical innovation, against what he perceives to be the historical current towards the homogenisation and commodification of the culture; Eagleton finds himself, 30 years later, officiating at the death of theory, amidst not only the final capitulation of the university to the marketplace, but also the dissipation of the energy that drove the critical counter-narrative that Hawkes was seeking, in 1987, to nourish.                                    (

Literary study thrives on nothing if not on contradictions and paradoxes, as the writers go on to show, in their brief summation of the thirty prognostic snippets contained under the said essay title and a justification of the essay topic’s sense of optimism after 30 years of mixed academic sentiments. As is well-studied, despite Plato’s prescriptive posture towards the poet, Aristotle gave to literary study the many enduring critical tools instrumental to salvaging the reputation of not only the writer but also that of a correlate literary study, which study has since grown in controversial reputation from contributions by several thinkers at different times and sometimes varied disciplines: a long stretch from poet and theorist Roman Horace (first century BC) through the many Renaissance, Neoclassic, Romantic, Modernist, Postmodernist, writers, thinkers, theorists, and experimentalists. But the twentieth century and certainly the last six decades or so of which the three decades under the editorial review is a part stands out as rather exceptional in the volume and intensity of arsenal unleashed, paradoxically, into, against, and by literary theory and criticism (and other disciplines) in birthing critical thinking or theory in the humanities and social sciences. The sanguine conclusion is apt:

  Can we imagine a time when literature and the world would be in harmony? Certainly, the last 30 years of Textual Practice have suggested a paradoxical relationship between the untimeliness of the critical arts and their persistence. If the journal has thrived, then it has done so in an awareness of the precarity of its exploits, and in a response to the demand that, in order to think well, one can only fail better. Literary thinking involves, perhaps necessarily, an encounter with worlds that are not available to thought.  


The numinous firmament of “worlds that are not available to thought” is breached frequently by strange fireworks that fuel literary controversy and affects the course of literary study and none, it would appear, has done so more fundamentally in recent times as has modern linguistics, as is widely acknowledged by scholars. The radicalism in Saussurean linguistics in the revision of binary relations in the system of language, especially between the continua of signifiers and signifieds, guaranteed the emergence of Structuralism, Post-structuralism, and whatever other labels their radical successors are currently wearing. The baffling subjectivity of theory presented initially as simultaneously normal and abnormal when compared with the role of theory in other domains of academic inquiry such as in the so-called pure sciences.

The inevitable trajectory of self-definition and self-reflexivity undertaken by theory in the humanities compounded issues for critical thinking and a charge of opacity and difficulty of discourse has come up against theory in the study of literature and which charge has ended up in the public sphere in an unsurprising confirmation of the observation by some academics that the age of a rarefied atmosphere of academic life was over, or maybe not. The development receives an interesting review in the collection of essays with the title Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena edited by Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb. The discussions wonder at the double-standard critical stance in some quarters to theory as a specific variety of discourse and shade of metalanguage: difficulty with comprehension in language use is acceptable in science and philosophy but not acceptable in literary study, and not, especially, in the type of metalanguage of expression of experience known as literary or critical thinking whose subject of inquiry is itself: in as much as its praxis is blatant self-reflexive discourse.

Theory in literature, as is well-known, is unapologetically subjective; its tendency to opacity and lack of semantic transparency is characteristic and a product of its foundation in modern linguistics and philosophy. As some scholars have argued, theory’s obscurantist style and recondite procedure confers power on a reader additional to that which served to elevate the reader above the creative writer in the poststructuralist age schema and construct of productivity. A plea of ignorance by a reader of discourse of critical thinking can and does present subtly as an exercise of a form of power which indicts an author and demands that the author of the piece of discourse put right the wrong of ignorance wrought on the reader. In their interesting introduction, Culler and Lamb compare the scenario with the process in a university that allows a student to assess and grade the performance of a lecturer at the end of a course: the arrangement does empower a student in a peculiar way, for good or ill – as a wielder of power over the lecturer being assessed.     

On this issue of the construction of power, it should seem puzzling how the creative writer of literature had enjoyed the exercise of unrestricted authority framed in language as “poetic licence” before the rise of the postmodern reader and oligarch – and probably still enjoys it after some circumscribed fashion – while what may be termed “critical licence” is being circumstantially denied the critical thinker and theorist of literary study. The question may arise, what exactly is critical thinking? In Doing Things with Texts Abrams offers a helpful description:

Since the mid-1960s, all traditional theories of poetry have been thrown into considerable disarray by a number of intellectual movements which, whatever their radical divergences, coincide in focusing on the way in which we read, and in the conclusion that there are “no right readings” of any poetic or literary writing, hence that, since the meanings of a text are radically indeterminate, a critic is liberated from his traditional subordinacy to the work he comments on. And in fact achieves the production of meaning – the function of “creativity” – that earlier critics had mistakenly attributed to the author of a work.  (Abrams 1989, 1991: 27)

It seems deducible from the scenario outlined in a nutshell by Abrams that critical licence is what literary thinking or postmodern theory is about: and that “critical licence” may no more be construed derogatory usage than “poetic licence” is done so. Literary theory is suitably fragmented in an advanced formation foreshadowed by formalist contention that the growth of literature is dependent not on changing history or literary tradition but on a defamiliarization of history or tradition by literary devices. Critical licence may be understood as authority of discourse, a device of literary study that serves effectively to turn everything in its sight upside down and apocalyptically, leaving in its wake such rather thought-provoking slogans as: “the author is dead”, “literature against itself”, “under Western eyes”, “a criticism of our own”, “the race for theory”, “recovering women in history from feminist deconstructionism”, “the death of theory”, etc.

Jonathan Culler reviews the situation succinctly in his handy Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction:

Theory makes you desire mastery: you hope that theoretical reading will give you the concepts to organize and understand the phenomena that concern you. But theory makes mastery impossible not only because there is always more to know, but, more specifically and more painfully, because theory is itself the questioning of presumed results and the assumptions on which they are based. The nature of theory is to undo, through a contesting of premises and postulates, what you thought you knew, so the effects of theory are not predictable. You have not become master, but neither are you where you were before. You reflect on your reading in new ways. You have different questions to ask and a better sense of the implications of the questions you put to works you read.   (Culler, 1997, 2011: 16)

Theory’s twin-action propensity and speculative thrust affords its practitioner an exciting opportunity to keep critical discourse and creative discourse simultaneously in view with minimal distraction by meaning – discursive meaningfulness being a luxury, as its more prominent practitioners have (controversially) famously/notoriously asserted. It is believed in some quarters – not altogether without foundation – that language is concussed in the experience (and the reader of commentary perplexed in the process). So the resort to sloganeering – and a questioning: Is theory also concussed and comatose, or dead altogether in the process?

Critical Fireworks

The explosive output of literary study of the twentieth century is a rather disconcerting presentation and historical development with roots in antiquity: Plato’s notional banishment of the poet on controversial charges that extracted mixed creative and critical reactions for centuries right up to the Neoclassic Age; the universalist traction enjoyed by Aristotle’s taxonomic procedure in the study of literature; the polemical inertia of the universalism in Philip Sidney’s famous attempted defence of poetry; the inversion of the classical theory of “decorum” in literary creativity and novel foregrounding of the “common man” and “ordinary language” in place of nobility and grandeur of cultivated enslavement to constrictive metrical lines of creative expression of a previous era in an influential Romantic Age; to cite a few examples from the intervening period between antiquity and postmodernism/poststructuralism in the study of literature.

The idea of globalisation is not an invention of the twentieth century whether in politics, economics, geography, religion or literature as should be clear from history, New Historicist subjectivity of history notwithstanding – and despite the monumental correlation in that century of ideological implosion and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall in Germany, and Apartheid in South Africa. The biblical fragmentation of the language of Babel recorded in Genesis chapter 11:1-9 is amenable to reading as an account of language dispersal and a counter-monolithic counter-global imperative: in some respects ancient and modern history seems to be a (variable) record of humanity’s desperate struggle to recover some form of protolinguistic Babel with the name Eden – which effort more often than not has only yielded the absurd and apocalyptic rather than the placid and paradisiac.  A remarkable historical slice of time (and variegated experience) tagged Renaissance is about nothing if not also about attempts at globalisation on different planes that included colonialism which became a key ingredient in the spread of certain European languages from among which – coupled with the advent of an Internet Age – English rose to a dominant position as a global language. Following a (largely unfounded) supposition that theory is dead, literary study seems newly embarked on a search for a world literature – the ostensible objective perhaps being a recovery of the integrity of the presupposition of a transcendental presence, a logos that forms the grounds of conventional literary theory and criticism (comparatively) newly sacked by the variety of critical thinking with the name Deconstruction.

A new-fangled interest in world literature by literary study may only have stemmed from a supposition that globalisation as a circuitous process is tantamount to a foregrounding of objectivity as opposed to subjectivity, a recovery and restoration of critical consensus to commentary, a homogenisation of strategy in the study of literature. Is there perhaps such a possibility as world literature? May be there is such a thing if world literature is taken as a signifier for a fleeting aggregation of the universal contents of Jungian archive of the collective unconscious or an evanescent corporate efflux of Foucauldian archaeology of the unconscious.  The attempt to uncover world literature the by-product of globalisation is fraught: the world stage is bafflingly deliberately polyglot, multi-ethnic, multi-racial and riven by bigotry of one disturbing sort or another. At a milder level is the suggestion that the surreal ethno-cultural fragmentation of the globe is bridgeable at creative levels by translation, a mode which serves as a conduit in birthing world literature. In Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, Rebecca L. Walkowitz engagingly tackles the conceptual nuances of the provenance of world literature through a reification of the idea(s)/process of translation:

In translation, literature has a past as well as a future. While many books produced today seek to entice or accommodate translation, aiming to increase their audiences and the market-share of their publishers, born-translated works are notable because they highlight the effects of circulation on production. Not only are they quickly and widely translated, they are also engaged in thinking about that process.   (Walkowitz, 2015:6)

Additional to the insightful observation, and for obvious reasons, the assertion is also tenable that: “Anglophone novels are more likely than novels in other languages to appear in translation: more works are translated out of English than out of any other language.” (Ibid. 20) The examples given of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe are illustrative of two translation patterns: in the first – which has become rare – the work is self-translated (by the author) from the original Gikuyu into English; in the second, the work is from an English original funnelled into other languages including Igbo the language of the cultural milieu and setting of the novel(s). Both patterns of lingo-literary motions are on the wane, and in certain respects call into question the ability of translation to deliver on world literature, among other factors. In the piece of geography in question, translation is manifestly limited in its capacity to deliver on the notional global cultural commodity.

What has post-coloniality (aesthetics of African literature) got to offer on this score if not an aggravated seemingly insoluble conundrum? Still, the aesthetics of African literature may be deployed as a microcosm and an exemplar that is illustrative of similar patterns in a much vaunted global terrestro-cultural macrocosm. The indeterminacy of the tag “African literature” as signified is demonstrated by the capricious variability of the signifier of the same label in quick time commencing from the globalist submissions of scholars and Africanists the likes of Claude Wauthier and Janheinz Jahn –  with the aesthetic canvas shifting/shrinking in weird globalist progression/withdrawal to cover geographic Africa, subsequently to include mostly sub-Saharan Africa while excising pre-1994 South Africa for ideological reason and variably inclusive of post-1994 South Africa for the same reason – and further attempts to tie the signifying canvas to conceptual pegs of Negritude, Pan-Africanism and African Personality proving signally impractical.  As signifier “African literature” is perversely void of concept according to this paradoxical manipulative progression and illusory historical presentation. Equally lax and lacking in specific signified in the bewildering aesthetic clutter are such signifiers as “North African literature”, “West African literature”, “East and Central African literature”, “Southern African literature”, etc. Also marked by absence are signifiers the likes of “South African literature”, “Nigerian literature”, “Ghanaian literature”, “Congolese literature”, “Kenyan literature”, “Malawian literature”, “Zambian literature”, “Zimbabwean literature” etc. Other related signifiers and floaters without signified, which like the preceding signifiers were birthed by historical, political and cultural contradictions, include: “Anglophone African literature”, “Francophone African literature”, “Lusophone African literature”. 

Missing in the giddy poetics of African literature are a motley array of signifiers which attempt to define literature in specific indigenous African languages such as Acoli, Akan, Degema, Edo, Gikuyu, Ibiobio, Igbo, Ishan, Kalabari, Kalanga, Ndebele, Ogoni, Setswana, Shona, Tiv, Urhobo, Venda, Wolof, Xhosa, Yoruba, Zulu, and three thousands more in an A-Z axis and slot of a myriad of names of ethno-cultural expression – of which the attempted coupling of signifier to signified foundered on ontological arrival pre- and post-colonially (and in-between). The prognosis for this category of signifiers by sociolinguists and other scholars is that the languages of their expression/description are headed for extinction, among other complex factors, but fundamentally and largely because of waning subscription to them by the relevant language communities at the level of communication and, worse, creative expression – fallout of a rapidly declining reading culture (albeit a global phenomenon with varying degrees of incidence, as scholars point out) in an Internet Age and posthuman era. 

With a turnover of nondescript signifiers like has been outlined above the political sociology of discourse would appear unsupportive of a deduction which validates the presence of a “world literature”. Comparably, signifiers on a larger global/world scale tend freakishly also to attach and detach capriciously with varying and variable diversity and intensity in relation to elusive signifieds in the geo-political cultural constructs of continents and sub-continents in the so-called global village. The proposition of a world literature appears aberrant and a search for it errant by other indicators: still, there seems never a law prohibiting a search however futile the prospective outcome of the endeavour. As is well-studied and still noteworthy, the late twentieth century was witness to a version of postcoloniality that decried a cultivation and propagation of (Aristotelian) universal imitable elements in the creative writing ascribable to amorphous “African literature” which malleable form and content, but more the supposed (elusive) content than the more accessible form, were found dismissible as Eurocentric. Also dismissible as un-African was subscription to Structuralism (singled out for being rather arcane and impractical except to the undaunted and tenacious as seemed the case with its more ardent practitioners such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and, in Africa, Donatus Nwoga) by a part of its praxis in the metalanguage undergirded by an illusionary African literature. On either side of the contestation the submission by Edward W. Said appears apposite that neither metonymy nor synecdoche is an adequate formula or trope for navigating the cultural waters of discourse – creative writing or critical commentary: no part of the cultural sphere/earth/globe may be held up as representative of the whole, as to do so seems manifestly far-fetched, arrogant and misguided. The geo-cultural sphere appears originally intended as a composite “text” of diverse sounds, shades and inputs.

Looming Debacle

The posthuman development presents in critical commentary as a freakish feature of the Internet Age and an ineluctable march of gradual erosion and virtual cancellation of the props of the humanities: for example, the weird techno-inspired alteration of language as we know it or the outright deletion of some of the languages (the gravity of this threat is not uniform for all languages) as human-made machines take over several functions that are conventionally associated with humanity. For a start, the computer has taken over and holds captive the bulk of human attention, as researchers continue to warn, with the result that less literature is being read compared to before the advent of television and computer; and because of the fall in demand by the reading community for literature, lesser quantities than before of literature are being published, and because of the decline in reading there is diminishing language competence – and in the frequently bilingual and multilingual  African socio-cultural setting the loss of linguistic (and reading) skills is at both levels of indigenous African language and the erstwhile language of colonialism still in use in official and other capacities. In their opening remark to The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages Peter K. Austin and Julia Sallabank give this interesting global picture:

It is generally agreed by linguists that today there are about 7,000 languages spoken across the world; and that at least half of these may no longer continue to exist after a few more generations as they are not being learnt by children as first languages. Such languages are said to be endangered languages. Current language and population distributions across the world are heavily skewed: there is a small number of very large languages (the top twenty languages, like Chinese, English, Hindi/Urdu, Spanish have over 50 million speakers each and are together spoken by 50 per cent of the world’s population), and a very large number of small languages with speaker communities in their thousands or hundreds. Economic, political, social and cultural power tends to be held by speakers of the majority languages, while the many thousands of minority languages are marginalized and their speakers are under pressure to shift to the dominant tongues.

(Austin & Sallabank 2011:1)

So, in the vicious cycle, the question arises, if (creative) literature (and reading/criticism) is on the wane, what chance of survival has theory or critical thinking (thinking about thinking, literary thinking)?

The solution to a baffling conundrum must be multi-faceted; more so because the development remains complicated in the African experience by (official) policy vacuity in regard to the formulation of a suitable language policy (and language planning) in the lingo-cultural maze that is a good part of post-colonial Africa. The national policy-makers in many parts of the continent appear stumped and clueless about what to do in a modern complexly multilingual state, despite the ample availability of helpful multi-sided research findings/data/recommendations/suggestions by scholars; for instance, of late, the much sung advocacy of the merit of bilingualism/multilingualism (whose pragmatic worth is sometimes overblown as a default strategy and ethno-cultural bridge) is counterpoised persuasively by ecolinguists with the value/virtue of carefully considered nurturing of linguistic diversity – before, a much vilified proposition – for language planning. Ironically, the traditional provenance and veritable well-spring of much useful studied lingo-cultural information is itself under fire. On the world stage (meaning: in many parts, generally speaking) there seems to be swirling overt and covert (official, governmental) antagonism towards the humanities through discriminatory depreciatory financial policy for higher education that favours science and technology disciplines (STEM – science, technology, engineering, math) in funding and is detrimental to non-STEM disciplines (the humanities, especially) as is increasingly widely observed and discussed.

As Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust remarked in his June 30 2010 address to the Royal Irish Academy, Trinity College, Dublin, titled “The Role of the University in a Changing World” there is little reason for the marginalisation of the humanities in a “rapidly changing and globalizing world”:

This kind of understanding lies at the essence of a university. Meaning is about interpretation. It is about understanding the world and ourselves not only through invention and discovery, but also through the rigors of re-inventing, re-examining, re-considering. To borrow a phrase from Albert Einstein, it is about figuring out what counts as well as what can be counted. Meaning is about remembering what we have forgotten, now in a new context; it is about hearing and seeing what is right in front of us that we could not before hear or see; it is about wisdom that must be stirred and awakened time and again, even in the wise… There is no one model for a university’s success, no disembodied “global research university” to which we all should aspire. Our variety supports our strength.


The systematic (financial) assault on conventional notions of “university” (and the humanities) and the traditional knowledge-based – as contrasted with commodity-based – expectations of it is symptomatic. A grim consequence of a much-touted concerted arrival to a global village is the demise of language (and literature) or at the least a humongous shrinkage of the supply-base of signifiers and their reach in an ominous equation that goes something like this: signifiers are what language is made of, language(s) (and literature) is on the wane; signifiers are what critical thinking runs on, signifiers have entered into decline, therefore critical thinking sinks into atrophy. As noted earlier, the linguistic prognosis is not peculiar to any particular language community, as it is a global (meaning: widespread) phenomenon, only variable in incidence, as sociolinguists argue, presenting more slowly in the global language(s) than in the indigenous African language(s). Also, it should seem obvious that critical thinking is not an isolated victim of the collateral damage from the rather grinding perverse linguistic configuration. Not only theory but also conventional literary theory and criticism (literary study) (and self-reflexively, literature) is casualty in the spectral universal (meaning: widespread) lingo-cultural formation.   

Is theory dead?

On the gloomy poser Culler avers:

One new strand in theoretical discussions of the 1990s and the early 21st century has been declarations (often gleeful) of the death of theory. It is hard not to suspect that if theory really were dead, had had its run, and vanished from the scene, people would not need to announce that it was dead. Declarations of the death of theory are most likely attempts to bring about what they proclaim (say it often enough and it might come true). It is true, of course, that theory is no longer the latest thing, a startling and exciting development. As it has come to be taken for granted as part of the critical scene and a subject of study, it has lost much of the glamour of novelty or notoriety… When theory is taken for granted, should this count as the death of theory or the triumph of theory?   (Culler, 1997, 2011: 16-17)

As the cliché and historical irony, theory gets paid back in its own coin when in its debut manifesto it makes the creepy triumphant declaration about the death of the author – and now theory is purported dead. But while theory’s gloating has shifted grounds substantially from an in-some-way literal supposition to a technical/figurative formulation and methodological plank of commentary, the bleak forecast about the demise of theory remains largely literal, it would seem. Even so, both positions of morbidity appear to be consistent with the sweep and elasticity of critical licence to accommodate: in a sense comparable to that of poetic licence. The author and theory are no more dead than thinkers, theorists Plato, Aristotle, Roman Horace, etc., etc. (and authors Homer, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Jean de la Fontaine, Milton, Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Achebe, D. O. Fagunwa, Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, Maya Angelou, Buchi Emecheta, Lewis Nkosi, André Brink, Derek Walcott, etc., etc.) are dead in all of twenty-six centuries or so of critical enquiry as a discursive springboard or reference point and point of departure in literary study generally.

The attempt to foreclose the issue of the fatality or otherwise of speculative discourse and accelerate the burial of theory/critical thinking/literary thinking through a deployment of slogans such as “post-post-structuralism, post-postmodernism” or indeed “after theory?” appears suspect, as pointed out. Much though the study of literature sometimes follows the cyclical pattern of fashion by foregrounding what items are in abeyance as it suits it, theory’s object/subject of attention, language, is iterative of a process to which it is subservient.

A common anti-theory fallacy is a tendency to be dismissive of certain strategies of theory on the basis of familiarity; for example, the adoption by newer critical discourse of a framework of binary differential opposition – first popularized, as is well-known, by Russian Formalism (and Saussurean linguistics) and subsequently radicalized through reverse privileging of binary elements (reverse “othering” in infinite regress) by Deconstruction and other strands of Poststructuralism (and inevitably Postcoloniality) – as unfashionable critical practice. If a good part of the critical arsenal bequeathed to literary study by Aristotle is still found fashionably usable by conventional literary theory and criticism, why should strategies of critical thinking be thought prone to senility so very quickly? The binary construct as a critical tool/strategy is no more out-dated than the spritely feral (transitory continuity continuum) fourth stage proposition by Wole Soyinka is as a trope/critical tool with which to probe/apprehend the numinous in literary discourse, creative or critical. It would appear that literary study is stuck with the binary principle however it configures, conventionally or in inverted form, insofar as it has served the psyche for good or ill for centuries in the construction of different aspects of sociocultural experience.  

For its part, theory has, in the short time of its appearance, wonderfully impacted the object/subject of its attention, namely language, as is common knowledge, in ways that ensure that language is guaranteed no swift and easy escape from part of the fallout of the hold of critical thinking on discourse. The global language, English, is probably still in shock, adaptable and resilient as it may be as a language, caused by the sheer impunity unleashed by philosophical and literary thinkers and theorists on its formal visceral underpinnings. Linguists point attention to unaccustomed roles that certain parts of speech of English have been compelled to play by critical thinking to the utter bewilderment of more conservative users of the language, the concession of a possibility of “Englishes” notwithstanding: for example, a novel disconcerting proclivity when nouns and verbs and adjectives swop syntactic roles with increasing panache in the grammar of postmodern English. This development mainly in critical metalanguage would have been thought to be the preserve of creative literature (and poetic licence) as opposed to literary study before the postmodern age and advent of critical commentary (and critical licence) as opposed to literary criticism. But that the development was a large-scale linguistic possibility – as it has turned out to be – had been suggested by the attitude to and handling of language by the likes of French Surrealism and German Expressionism earlier in the twentieth century.


Globalisation as a signifier is an indicator of socio-cultural illusion, a conceptual mirage of a postmodernist age. African literature, like world literature, as a signifier, is an indicator of conceptual absence: indigenous African languages are headed for extinction and are taking creativity and reading (of literature) along with them while the global language evinces more staying power itself puzzlingly simultaneously helped and undercut by technology. The answer to the question “after theory?” seems to be: “theory” – because a return to platonic prescriptiveness (and homogenisation of aesthetics) as suggested by anti-theory slogans for literary theory and criticism (literary study) is a pipedream. The anti-foundationalism and anti-traditionalism of theory has impacted in fundamental ways (and permanently) on the way and manner in which we think about language, literature and culture; hence, a campaign for full restoration of literary theory and criticism to primal foundationalism and traditionalism is illusionary and unattainable.

Literary study (and language) cannot fully recover from theory; notably, there is and (at the same time) there is nothing like an aftermath of theory. Postmodernist theory is a pragmatic linguistic precipitate of critical licence fed by tributaries whose headwaters lie in such disciplines as modern linguistics and philosophy. Critical licence is unwritten code and authority to run discourse unhindered along whichever trajectory of critical thinking/theory in a manner comparable to how poetic licence in literature engenders experimentation, invention and discovery. Both poetic licence and critical licence (and the discursive manifestation) are beholden to language. Theory (and the humanities as a discipline) is no more dead, about to die, or irrelevant than humanity as a class of thought-agents and language-users is, generally speaking. The future of theory (critical thinking, literary thinking, thinking about thinking) like much else in literature is tied ultimately not to wishful thinking (paradoxically) but to the destiny of language(s) and literature(s) in a postmodern posthuman world that is in ironic (increasingly xenophobic, dystopic) transnational socio-cultural geopolitical recession. A pristine inviolate discursive past without theory is irrecoverable.


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