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Theories of Africans: Francophone Literature and Anthropology in Africa.

In his previous work on Francophone Africa, the much praised Blank Darkness, Christopher Miller describes, by way of Foucault and Said, how Europe categorized Africa. In that work he charts the development of such Eurocentric concepts as idolatry, heathenism, and animism, all of which coalesce in the nineteenth-century notion of Darkness -- the absence of the light of European social, political, and cultural practices. In so doing Miller demonstrates how the discourse of African primitivism created and maintained an intransigent cultural edifice. In this latest book, a work of admirable ambition, Miller complements Blank Darkness by analyzing how African intellectuals have combatted cultural edifice through oral literature, fiction, and cultural criticism.

Miller makes Theories of Africans an even more nuanced study by situating European scholars (literary critics and anthropologists) within the vortex of debate about African culture. Accordingly, Miller begins the book by posing a question central to contemporary literary and anthropological scholarship: how do Western scholars avoid inscribing their own beliefs onto non-Western (African) texts? What are the social, cultural, and political consequences of Eurocentric inscription?

Such African cultural critics as P. Hountondji, V. Y. Mudimbe, C. Achebe, and W. Soyinka have lambasted Western scholars of African letters and social life for their academic imperialism. Hountondji says that Western critics consider theory their special preserve; African scholars are deemed capable only of the secondary task of gathering raw information. Although African polities have been decolonized for a generation, these critics suggest, the conceptual colonization of the Western canon persists.

Miller advocates two ways to confront this problem: theory (Derridean deconstruction) and the new ethnography (dialogic anthropology). To his credit, Miller admits that neither tack is a panacea to the social, political, and ethical problems of imperialist inscription. And yet, the idea of analyzing African literature in its anthropological context is a felicitous one with implications beyond the field of African literary studies. Theories of Africans might be more aptly titled, Theories of the Mande, a confederation of ethnically distinct peoples in the West African Sahel linked through history, language, and culture. The Mande are an apt choice for Miller's purposes. Writers from Mande have produced some of the finest examples of Francophone literature in Africa, works which lend themselves to anthropological contextualization.

The book consists of six chapters and a conclusion. In chapters 1 and 2 Miller sets the stage for his specific readings of African works. Chapter 1 builds a theoretical framework for the Western analysis of African texts. Considering the questions of ethics and ethnicity in Chapter 2, Miller illustrates how Western analysts, specifically "classical" anthropologists, projected maps of homogeneous total ethnic groups onto the African landscape. As Miller rightly acknowledges, these "classical" tendencies were -- and are -- far too common in the anthropological literature on African peoples. Citing the work of Amselle in Mali, Miller argues that the ethnically heterogeneous Mande belie the notion of ethnic homogeneity in the Western Sahel. In fact, the entire history of West Africa is characterized not by homogeneity, but by the cultural complexity brought on by longstanding traditions of travel, of cultural contact, of people making finite social distinctions -- Africans who theorize.

Through Miller's anthropologically informed readings of Francophone African literature, Theories of Africans reinforces the generally overlooked but epistemologically important point that African literature is as complex as the African sociocultural landscape. His essay on the Mande griot or bard is one of the most clearsighted analyses of African oral literature that I've ever read. There is no "original" version of epics like the one about the exploits of Sunjata, the thirteenth-century founder of Mali; there are many "flexible" versions of the Sunjata epic, each of which is sung in a particular political arena. Thus, oral literature in Africa is never politically naive; its persuasive force was -- and is -- used in ongoing struggles for power.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 each analyze Francophone novels penned by West African writers. In chapter 4 Miller probes Camara Laye's famous L'Enfant Noir. Laye was from a family of bards and smiths. Immersed in the world of Mande oral literature as a child, Laye's path from oral to written literature was a natural one. Miller devotes much space in this chapter to an analysis of totemism, a key concept in the book. Here Miller suggests how "classical" anthropologists misunderstood such locally refined concepts as totemism -- misperceptions due to their epistemologically conditioned ideological projections. This tendency was -- and is -- part of anthropology's modernist project to totalize the other.

In Chapter 5, which contemplates Kourouma's Les Soleils d'Independance, Miller writes about the problem of writing African novels in a language alien to Africa: classical French. Kourouma's book is sophisticated cultural criticism on two levels. First, it is the story of one Mande nobleman's trials and tribulations during colonization and decolonization. Second, it is Kourouma's conscious attempt to break up and distort classical French, an attempt to speak Malinke but write in French. As such, Soleils is an eminently dialogical text. Using Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia, Miller argues that Kourouma wrote a genuinely polyvocal text -- the mostly unrealized dream of the new ethnography -- which captures the ethos of the social chaos of the cultural politics of African independence.

In Chapter 6, Miller reflects on African feminism by discussing Senegalese women writers and feminist anthropology. Much of this chapter is a culturally sensitive analysis of Mariama Ba's novel, Une Si Longue Lettre, the epistolary style of which Miller considers gender-specific. Miller uses his essay on Ba to discuss the dialectic of speech and silence and to describe the dynamics of feminism in West Africa. Ba was a pioneering woman writer. Since her death in 1981, there has been a proliferation of women's writing in Francophone Africa. As with the status of women in the Sahel, however, the state of women's writing in Africa is at best tenuous.

Miller concludes his scrupulous study by cautioning other critics (literary scholars and anthropologists alike) about the unavoidable projections of alien categories onto African texts: "The validity of what I have done in this study ultimately depends on the degree of success I have had in translating myself across various borders, projecting my attention into textual encounters with Africans" (297).

Theories of Africans is a noteworthy achievement in literary criticism. Miller's invocation of new developments in cultural anthropology is salutary. That said, I must add that Miller's book suffers from a chronic ailment found in many works of cultural studies: they are not cultural enough. Limiting himself to the study of African literature -- albeit some of it oral -- Miller bypasses a wide range of other forms of African cultural expression: ritual, local folk theater, and radio theater. All of these are widely accessible forms of cultural expression and performed in African languages.

The most powerful form of African cultural expression, of course, is not the much-discussed novel, but the cinema. In fact, filmmakers from the West African Sahel (Senegal, Mali, Burking Faso, and Niger) constitute the vanguard of the African cinema. Such films as Sembene's Xala and Ceddo, Cisse's Yellem, and Ouedraogo's Yabba have been internationally acclaimed. In short, the African cinema projects -- in the positive sense of the word -- cultural themes to a wide range of audiences in Africa, Europe, and North America. Most of these films present localized portraits of social and political reality in Africa, thereby avoiding the totalizing of which Miller writes so eloquently.

Is it enough to present theories of Africans through textual encounters? These encounters seem somewhat distantiated when compared with energetic debates between deities and mortals at a possession ceremony or the lively conversations between audience and images on the silver screen at outdoor theaters. These interactions are not textual theories of Africans; rather they are quotidian sites in which Africans theorize. The excellence of Miller's book notwithstanding, the inclusion of these localized theories-in-the-making in future literary studies will perhaps make (African) cultural studies more cultural.
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Author:Stoller, Paul
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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