21 November 2004

Kenya's Mediocre Writers And Titan Derrida's Legacy

Nairobi — Beyond the borders of Kenya, there was a time when literature was a fixed, known and unproblematic category; a time during which, if you were an academic in a Literature Department, you knew what you were meant to study, and this, usually according to your country and its prejudices and power. In the United Kingdom, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Eliot. In the United States, Longfellow, Poe, Melville, and so on and so forth. A comfortable time, when academics wore half-moon spectacles, tweed jackets and sucked on languorous pipes in white, Men Only common rooms.

Kenyan literary icon Ngugi wa Thiong'o: "While we fail to engage academically, while we fail Ñ to use Ngugi's phrase Ñ to move the centre towards us, we deserve the literary marginalisation that Kenya so miserably continues to suffer on the world stage."

The poor knew their place and knew, consequently, that "Great Literature" was beyond them; that the writings of those "hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration", as Shelley called the poets, could only be appreciated by those fustian old gentlemen who shared the poets' divine intellect. In fact, those of us who know our history are aware that colonial education spread such arrogant contentedness to our own and other shores, obliging the Okots and the Ngugis to admire unconscionable Kipling and others of his chauvinistic ilk.

But things changed. They changed over the course of the 20th century. Many minor and fascinating revolutions hit the contented Literature Department and wider Humanities Faculties of the world, but none more powerfully and fundamentally than that continuing revolution called Post-structuralism, a sometimes clumsy and confusing cluster of theories, usually Left-inspired, that by the end of the 1970s was fundamentally changing the world, or at least the way that anyone who studied any humanities subject viewed the world. From South America to North America to Asia to Europe to Australasia to much of Africa, the world of first academia and then popular culture embraced, sometimes with a struggle and a wince, most of the basic thunderbolt-tenets of Post-structuralism.

Visit any university in today's world, and it soon becomes apparent that the majority of worthwhile academics, particularly in "Literature" Departments, are deeply knowledgeable about Post-structuralism and the work of its major practitioners, whether they support or question its worth. Even I, a young fogey who entered for a doctorate at Oxford with - probably - the intention of doing little more than sipping champagne and reading Byron to young lovelies while punting through hazy summer afternoons, could not escape its reach in the 1990s. I soon found that the previously-unquestioned value of even the obscure Romantic period texts that I had chosen to study was being contested by Post-structuralists, and I had no choice but to engage with these folk. Heck, I even watched as one of my tutors, Terry Eagleton, arguably then the world's leading - and most witty - Marxist thinker, fought an increasingly furious and futile battle with the "Posties", eventually emerging with a totally reworked Neo-Marxism that drew heavily upon the work of these European and post-colonial thinkers.

An exciting time for literary studies around the world.

Kenya, meanwhile, plodded on ineptly, its Nyayo "Professors" writing the most agonising rubbish about Literature's "beauty" and the need for Kenyan literature to "inculcate the general reader with [Christian] moral values". We remain in this embarrassing time-warp as the rest of the (post-colonial) world engages with theory. Our students know it, visiting readers know it, and I suspect that even the dons know it. No wonder that barely anyone either reads or enjoys that sort of Kenyan literature; most of those few Kenyans who do regularly read have, frankly, moved beyond that type of writing prescribed by our academics. No-one wants to be told what to read by folk who have clearly not read any work of criticism or theory published after 1970. I, too, would rather read the label on a tub of Blue Band than the abysmal trash that passes for literary scholarship in this country, let alone the bland and doctrinaire trash that this "scholarship" endorses. Only the occasional Evan Mwangi, now at Ohio University, or those diasporic Kenyans in South Africa, lighten the academic darkness.

Phew! Let's take a breather. Why on earth am I getting so worked up, when usually I'm such a calm type? Simply, this: Arguably the most important (Post-structuralist) thinker of the late 20th and early 21st century has just died. Jacques Derrida, a man whose desperately difficult writings have infuriated me and better minds for decades, has just died of cancer. I couldn't be more miserable if my own pet dogs had just exploded. Not because I knew the man. No: because no Kenyan academic has ever shown any evidence that they have ever read anything at all by him or those vital figures such as Foucault who are associated with him. This is an embarrassment. This is an humiliation. This is perhaps the most chilling and damning indictment possible of our inept academics: Not a single essay that I have read from an academic employed in a Kenyan literature department shows any evidence at all of engagement with secondary literature written by that immensely important group of thinkers, the Post-structuralists.

How can Jacques Derrida have lived, written so much, changed so much in the world of the academy in all disciplines, especially literature, yet his writings have not even been alluded to by those who represent this country in the world of the intellect?

I've no intention of summarising the breadth of Derrida's work. Frankly, it would be a brave person who attempted such a feat. And yet, his Deconstructionist ideas ingeniously and convincingly subverted all those truths that, in the US phrase, were always held to be self-evident. Perhaps the greatest sceptic that the world has ever seen, Derrida confidently undermined the unquestioned and hubristic assumptions of Western philosophy, in this way enabling the modern-form emergence of such radical and Kenya-relevant theoretical positions as Post-colonialism. Hailing often from the Post-colonies themselves, notably the Algeria that famously nursed Fratz Fanon into championing The Wretched of the Earth, Post-structuralists such as Derrida, Foucault, Spivak and Bhabha, amongst so many others, gave voice and theoretical tools to a new generation of the formerly colonised, enabling us to argue back, first at Empire, and then at creeping Neo-colonialism.

Kenya's dons, meanwhile, continued telling us only such things as "such and such a book should be ignored because it's disrespectful of such and such", blah blah blah. As both a foreigner, and as a Kenyan writer who, some journalist once wrote, is becoming "naturalised" (whatever that means), I have never been so amused, amazed and incensed at the level of scholarship and the irrelevance of that scholarship in any country that I have ever visited.

It is about time, folk have told me - current students, recent graduates, "exiled" academics in the US and South Africa, amongst others - that someone told our literary academicians just what the majority of readers think of them: Very little. And gave them some advice: Read some recent theory, and attempt Derrida, even if through introductory texts.

How disgusting that the major figure in world (not Western) literature and scholarship has just died, and this without his name, or those of other Post-structuralists, ever having been sufficiently uttered in our own groves of academe. While we fail to engage academically, while we fail - to use Ngugi's phrase - to move the centre toward us, we deserve the literary marginalisation that Kenya so miserably continues to suffer on the world stage. Derrida wouldn't want to rest in peace - he'd want his Left-inspired writings to be debated and contested, and this in the way that they so powerfully are in other parts of Africa. Sad thing is, so far as our Kenyan universities are concerned, this titan might as well have been dead when he was alive; as dead as our scholarship.

Mr Partington is the author of the Kenyan poetry collection, SMS & Face to Face (Phoenix).

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