In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture.
And yet there is a sense in which these autobiographical gestures enable us to understand the foundational moments of Appiah's intellectual practice and - more importantly - clarify the intercultural ideals that have come to characterize his controversial position in relation to the most troublesome questions of our time - questions about race, nation, and modernity. It was in his father's house, Appiah informs us in the preface, that he inherited a model "for the possibility of a Pan-Africanism without racism"; the purpose of his book, then, is to explore the "conceptual implications" of this identity. At the end of the book, however, the author's desire for an identity based on what he calls reasonableness is called into question by conflicting affiliations, beliefs, and even political economies. In these circumstances, Appiah's autobiographical reflections are important for another reason: despite the analytical rigors which he brings to his subject, and in spite of what may sometimes appear to be detachment from the politics of everyday life in his deconstruction of issues such as race and nationalism, Appiah is a writer in close touch with the intercultural world that he seeks to realize in his works.
Thus while many of the essays collected in this volume appear to have been written as specific responses to particular cultural debates - chapter 2, for example, first appeared as "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race" - they are connected to the author's autointellectual concerns: his quest for a critical discourse on African identities in the twentieth century, a cognitive mapping of the sources and problems of intercultural knowledge, and the status of the African subject in the metaphysics of modernity. The result is a book in which individual chapters cut across regions, disciplines, and methods: philosophy and critique (chapters 5 and 6), ethnography and race (chapters 1 and 2), cultural studies (chapters 3 and 4), political and intellectual history (chapters 7, 8, and 9), and literary criticism and theory (chapter 7). And although Appiah insists that his primary concerns, as they emerge in each of these chapters, are with answers - "not with histories of answers" - this book is most perspicuous in those sections which engage with the histories of the questions that have generated the answers.
It seems, after all, that Appiah's disenchantment with the politics of contemporary culture arises from his discomfort with such answers. In discussing the New World genealogy of Pan-Africanism and its compromised doctrines on race, for example, the author takes the founders of Pan-Africanism - most notably Alexander Crummell and Edward Blyden - to task for failing to transcend the conceptual blinders of race and ethnocentricism. Appiah is harsh - but quite right - in his discussion of the ambivalent metaphysics of New World Africans: their desire for Africa as the natural home of black people - and hence the foundation text of a revalorized blackness - is attacked for having been underwritten by the Founding Fathers' uncompromising rejection of "indigenous moral and cognitive concepts" (6); their unquestioning investment in the power (and thus terror) of Western rationality always evinced an African identity which was not very different from the Euro-American cultures whose racism they detested. An even more intriguing problematic, one eloquently discussed in the first two chapters of this book, was the Pan-Africanist quest for intellectual and subjective relief in the schema that had imprisoned the African in the zones of European alterity - concepts of race and racialism.
One has to admire the rigor with which Appiah reconstructs in the second chapter Du Bois's attempt - and ultimate failure - to transcend inherited notions on race. And yet, as numerous respondents to this argument have noted, there seems to be something missing in Appiah's "negative hermeneutics" and his disappointment in Du Bois's failure to discuss culture outside the space of values inscribed by race. Why is the author's clamor for a hermeneutics of culture oblivious to preliminary questions of epistemology and positionality? Why doesn't Appiah acknowledge the epistemic power of Du Bois's condition of possibility, a condition in which, it appears, cultural meanings couldn't be inscribed except within a doxology that took race and nation as the very condition of culture itself?
In a recent response to these questions, Lucius Outlaw reaches what is - in my view, at least - an untenable conclusion: "The problem that Appiah is concerned with here is not ... classification," says Outlaw; "rather it is the troubling question of identity: with which ~race' does a person identify himself or herself when their parents are persons of different races?"(1) I think this view is untenable not only because of its faulty presupposition - the assumption that we can talk about identity in the absence of classification - but because its not too subtle reference to Appiah's - "biracial" background seeks to take the question of "race" outside philosophy by sleight of hand. There could be, I think, a more appropriate critique of Appiah here: why does he refuse to subject hermeneutical issues - questions and hypotheses that underlie cultural understanding, for example - to the pressures of political and cultural practices?
It is when we turn to Appiah's discussion of Africa in the theories of contemporary culture that we can see how theoretical propositions about culture are conditioned by political and "everyday" practices. The conjecture between the hermeneutical and the political is apparent in essays such as - "Topologies of Nativism," "The Myth of the African World," and "The Postcolonial and the Post-modern," where the author's concern is not simply the theories generated by Africa as an object of knowledge but also the institutions in which this theorizing takes place. Some important presuppositions guide Appiah's critique here: first, his sense of African culture as the product of institutions - such as the school - whose origins are explicitly colonial; second, his recognition of the ways in which the "reverse discourse" of African nationalism draws most of its concepts and grammar from the Eurocentric tradition it demonizes; and third, his valorization of modes of cultural analysis driven by the need to defamiliarize the ossified cultural grammar of nativism. Such gestures of defamiliarization lead to theoretical (and pragmatic) positions that I find comforting: there is no more urgent task in African studies today than the rejection of the cultural unanimism that continues to imprison our rich and diverse cultures in a romantic Eurocentric paradigm that now wears the robe of Afrocentricism; neither nativist literary criticism nor imperial Western theory can be valorized as adequate methods for reading the African text; not even Wole Soyinka's quest for an African cultural body with a common metaphysics can stand close critical scrutiny.
But Appiah's "negative hermeneutics" - and his uncompromising critique of such presuppositions - bothers me for the simple reason that even as I agree with him (on a theoretical and philosophical level), I find myself surrounded by cultural practices that succor the positions we would like to renounce. The very existence of a body of texts that valorize a unanimous cultural object - Africa - with a "common stock of cultural knowledge" has created a set of beliefs which the kind of cultural critique Appiah promotes would be hard - pressed to contest. There is something to be said for a philosophical standard of truth and rationality in analysis, as Appiah notes in his critique of ethnophilosophy, but we have to consider the rhetorical constitution of Africa (in nativist texts) as something akin to "the ontology of invisible beings" Appiah reads in Ghanian cultural syncretism: we may not be comfortable with it, but it constitutes an epistemology we cannot fail to take seriously.
On the other hand, Appiah's discussion of the relation between the postcolonial and the postmodern is an excellent example of why theoretical vigilance is so crucial to any discourse on the "other." For while it has become fashionable to read the postcolonial paradigm as an instrument of postmodernism, Appiah swiftly sweeps such assumptions aside and focuses on the kind of simple truths poststructuralist theory represses in its quest for theoretical rescue plans in the realm of alterity. First, Appiah points out the different ways in which postcoloniality is linked to problems of modernity - rationalization, charisma, and modernization - and the crucial redefinition of commodification in global cultures. Second, he discusses the ways in which the form of the African novel has been connected to an (essentially) modernist anxiety centered on issues of economic development, freedom, and legitimation.
But while we are given outstanding readings of these novels, I don't think Appiah's correlation of the problem of national legitimation and form can withstand close scrutiny. In other words, I'm suspicious of his claim that nationalism in Africa demanded a certain form of realism in the novel, or that the need to delegitimate the new nation - state demanded a sustained critique and rejection of realism. The examples Appiah uses - Chinua Achebe and Yambo Ouloguem - fit nicely in his theoretical scheme, but I could come up with contrary evidence: I could argue, for example, that Amos Tutuola's "unrealistic" works are forms of national legitimation, or that Ngugi wa Thiong'o's realistic novels (Petals of Blood, for instance) use "realistic" form to delegitimate the nation - state. My contrary evidence would, of course, reinforce Appiah's plea for modes of cultural critique that reject unanimity by valorizing competing theoretical positions.
Appiah's respect for competing theoretical positions is a facet of his book which needs to be recognized; for readers familiar with his previous works, this marks a crucial shift in the author's theoretical tactics. For who can forget that Appiah came to the attention of students of literary criticism and cultural theory in North America through a fiercely analytical critique of Sunday Anozie's structuralism ("Strictures on Structures") in Black Literature and Literary Theory? Given Appiah's training in analytical philosophy - and especially his previous work on truth in semantics - I was not surprised by his rejection of the central tenets of structural linguistics. I was, however, nonplused by the harshness of his tone and what appeared to be his summary dismissal of the conditions in which Anozie's structuralism had emerged. One of the many things I like about his book is that even when he is most critical, Appiah examines the intellectual genealogy and cultural conditions in which his adversaries write.
But given the author's cardinal rule of consistency, I was surprised by one obvious lack of serious critique in In My Father's House. I thought that Appiah should have questioned - and dismissed - Kwesi Wiredu's presupposition of "the universality of reason," not only because his book takes universalism to task in other instances (in imperialistic literary theory, for example), but also because it contradicts two of Appiah's central claims: first, that rationality "is best conceived of as an ideal, both in the sense that it is something worth aiming for and in the sense that it is something we are incapable of realizing" (116); second, that in "the altered states" of contemporary Africa, rationality does not seem to be a negation of "an ontology of invisible beings" (112). Such reasonable observations are, of course, just a few examples of the critical power of this book: they point to its capacity to question both a Western doxology that would prefer to terrorize the African with a European "tribal" dispute (on the efficacy of reason) and a romantic discourse that prefers not to see reason in traditional cultures.
(1.) Lucius Outlaw, "On W. E. B. Du Bois' ~The Conservation of Races,'" Sapina Newsletter 4 (1992) 27.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1993|
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