Academic journal article New Formations

Articulating Empire: Newspaper Readerships in Colonial West Africa

Academic journal article New Formations

Articulating Empire: Newspaper Readerships in Colonial West Africa

Article excerpt

Abstract Focussing on locally-owned newspapers in colonial West Africa, this essay presents a Mstory of reading in the colonies which experiments with reading beyond, or reading outside, the anti-colonial nationalist perspective that prevails over newspaper history. The essay asks what kind of 'information' about the values, attitudes, aspirations and articulations of diverse colonial readerships can be extrapolated from the indigenous press, and about the manner in which non-readers' in West Africa interacted with printed forms, including the newspaper.

Keywords West Africa, newspapers, reading public, colonialism, orality, nationalism

Book historians have recently criticised the extent to which Euro-American generic hierarchies and evaluative biases have infiltrated 'the minds of commentators on literary reception in the wider world'.1 A residual bias of another sort persists in postcolonial literary scholarship, however, including in the work of book historians themselves: the tendency to use generalised categories such as 'the reader' or 'reader' to refer to the plurality of consumers of books and other printed materials at different times and in different global locations. As a consequence readers have, until recently, existed as shadowy figures in studies of colonial and postcolonial literary cultures. So great is our fascination for the contents and circulation of particular titles in colonial and postcolonial settings that - as in the intricate archival work of Robert Darnton on British surveillance of newly published books in colonial India2 - local readers are frequently left out of the frame.

If one privileges the contents of a text above its consumption, or official documents above local readers' responses, an entire field of articulation is erased from the literary map. As this essay will suggest, particular print-mediated subjectivities and genres emerged in locally-owned newspapers in colonial West Africa, and significant processes of textual production can be found in the press in the form of readers' articulations. Indeed, the binary opposition between 'the reader' and 'the text', or consumer and commodity, which tends to dominate Euro-American literary criticism, is inaccurate to describe the colonial (con)texts examined in this essay.

The history of reading and authorship in Britain's West African colonies is inseparable from the rise of African-owned newspapers. Newspapers provide a substantial and unique resource for research into reader reception, cultural production and political agency in the colonial period. The sheer quantity of indigenous newspapers in Britain's colonies has, however, tended to cause scholars to treat the press as an archive to be mined for information. Such a straightforward approach minimises or ignores the status of newspapers as productive literary forms with the power to generate (and to be modified by) particular types of discourse.3 Yet the structural and textual complexities of colonial newspapers are of equal importance to their contents. As cultural historians, we need to appreciate the ways in which newspapers produced political realities and generated reading publics at different moments of colonial history, and the status of newspapers as elite-owned textual commodities which had the power to articulate (with) diverse colonial readerships.

Cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall and Richard Middleton have used the concept of articulation to describe the processes whereby social classes 'speak forth' from particular socioeconomic positions, connecting cultural elements together while never being wholly fixed within the parameters of class. An articulation, Hall states in interview, is:

the form of the connection that can make a unity of two different elements, under certain conditions. It is a linkage which is not necessary, determined, absolute and essential for all time. You have to ask, under what circumstances can a connection be forged or made? …

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