Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Alternative Modernities in African Literatures and Cultures

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Alternative Modernities in African Literatures and Cultures

Article excerpt

C'est l'Afrique ton Afrique qui repousse Qui repousse patiemment obstinement Et dont les fruits ont peu a peu L'amere saveur de la liberte. (1)

("Afrique", David Diop)

The quarrel about the nature and value of modernity and its alternatives has been going on since the inception of modernity itself, so much so that self-reflective questioning is often deemed one of modernity's defining characteristics. What keeps on changing though, is the vocabulary, dynamics and--to the extent that one can speak in such terms--the conclusions drawn from these quarrels. With each modification in the participants, the disciplinary and the geographical location, the discussion takes on different inflections. Consequently Jean Comaroff describes modernity as "colorless, odorless, and tasteless" (Jean & John Comaroff2002b: s.p.). Till quite recently though, what has remained constant is the notion that there is only one modernity, even if definitions of and alternatives to this singular modernity are multiple. By contrast, the papers collected in this special issue on alternative modernities in African literatures, cultures and histories suggest that a genuine debate about modernity and the alternatives to it requires a rigorous understanding of the alternatives within modernity.

The title of this double volume consciously picks up on the collection Alternative Modernities (2001) edited by Dilip Parameshwar Goankar. (2) It shares the view of modernity Goankar takes over from Baudelaire and from Foucault's reading of Kant, namely that it is an "attitude of questioning the present" (Goankar 2001: 13) and that this questioning itself takes different forms in different parts of the globe. (3) Modernity, as the essays in Alternative Modernities as well as this special volume of the Journal of Literary Studies attest, "always unfolds within a specific cultural or civilizational context" with the result that "different starting points for the transition to modernity lead to different outcomes" (Goankar 2001: 17). The articles offered here differ though from the ones in the Alternative Modernities collection in two respects. Firstly, while it shares Goankar's view that "modernity is global" and "multiple and no longer has a governing centre or master-narrative to accompany it" (p. 14), this collection takes a decidedly African perspective on this global phenomenon. Whereas Goankar's collection spreads its site-based inquiry into the specificities of modernity across various parts of the globe (from imperial Russia to Mexico, India and Australia), the present special issue underlines the necessity of extending the focus of the inquiry in the geocultural direction of Africa. (4) Secondly, it explores the continuities in the threefold relationship between traditionalism, modernity, and postmodernity rather than the binary oppositions of tradition--modernity and modernity-postmodernity, adding that an inquiry into alternative modernities (in Africa as elsewhere) requires placing the middle term--modernity--firmly in its relationship to both traditionalism and postmodernity.

Where Europeans have multiplied modernity it has at best been in the alternative definitions they give to modernity in inter- and intra-disciplinary disputes. Although these definitions vary greatly according to discipline and the ideological leanings of those drawing up the definitions, they remain constant in their European focus. Thus in European philosophy, modernity is generally associated with the prominence granted to reason in the writings of Descartes, Kant, and Hegel. In religion it is tied to Luther's protestant revolution and in literature it is associated with the rise of the novel and the names of Cervantes and Fielding. In economics it evokes the industrial and capitalist revolutions, whilst in politics and society it is tied to the belief in the routes progress, democracy, and nationalism have taken in Europe, which is accompanied with the belief in the imperative to spread these values through colonialism. …

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