Reading Room > Literature > Hugh Webb, African Literature > Chapter 17

Passionate Spaces:
African Literature and the Post-Colonial Context

Chapter 17
Literary form and ideology
The Counter-Attack?

We want to act, if only to stop embarrassing ourselves
Atieno-Odhiambo (1971) 1

While it is appropriate to identify expressions of disillusionment and search as the dominant motif in the literature, the demonstrable truth of such a statement raises certain significant questions when that literature is seen against the contemporary socio-political context. A closer investigation of this central thematic trend uncovers a network of apparent contradictions. How is it that this body of literature, seemingly affirming the original ideals of Independence and Uhuru, often stands in an oppositional relationship to actual societal directions? How is it, for instance, that Meja Mwangi's scathing indictment of social inequalities in Jomo Kenyatta's Kenya results in the award of the Kenyatta Prize for Kill Me Quick?2 How is that African writers (many who, by education and social position, belong potentially to the emergent elite group) constantly attack this group in their writings? Is there, then, an allowable area of dissent; an area wherein socio-political criticism (in, and from, the literature) is subsumed within legitimate, authorised discussion; an area where the whole concept of 'disillusionment and the way forward' has become a convention rather than a radical focus of concern - a feature of African literary life itself? How, then, to reconcile the trenchant criticism of a socio-political order (whatever its variety) with an apparent defusing of that criticism? When we look for answers to such questions, two areas of investigation are inevitably foregrounded: the relationship between ideology and literary production; and the relationship between ideological inquiry and formal experimentation in literature.

The role of ideology in modern African literature represents a central avenue of critical attention. Ideology can be defined as a consensus of the ideas, values and feelings by which men and women experience their societies at various times. Yet ideology also partakes of a structure more definite than such a description would at first suggest. For, with ideology, we are dealing with a structured belief-system (a system with a greater or lesser degree of correspondence to reality). Historically, the dominant function of ideology is to legitimate the power of a ruling group (in contemporary Africa, that of the political elites). The relationship between literature and ideology is to be found in a process of dialectical interaction. If ideology signifies the imaginary ways in which men and women experience the real world, this is also the kind of experience literature gives to us. Literature, it is generally agreed, does more than passively reflect that experience. As Louis Althusser has pointed out, literature is held within ideology, but also manages to distance itself from it, to the point where it permits us to perceive the ideology from which it springs.3 Having distanced itself from this ideology, it would appear to have a potential function of comment (or criticism) on the nature of the ideological system within which it is held. Yet there is, of course, another side to the coin: literature not as 'distanced' inquiry but as a carrier of ideological influence. Here, the question of literary form assumes great importance.

While the choice of one form, one mode of expression, is itself a moral (and socio-political) choice, it is necessary to point out that the writer finds this choice already ideologically circumscribed.4 For the "true bearers of ideology in art are the very forms of the work itself."5 Thus, and here we can sense the importance of formal experimentation in literature, significant developments in literary form tend to result from significant changes in ideology. In a study of modern African literature, given the possibility of ideological change, we can then raise the concept of an ideological norm and consequent variations on that norm. The concept of commitment (and committed writing) then takes on a more radical significance. Commitment becomes not only a matter of ideas and 'solutions' but more of a reshaping of the formal response. It reveals itself in the manner in which the individual artist reconstructs the artistic forms at his disposal. Reshaping the form (and, therefore, the ideology) is, however, only one of the problems facing the modern African author.

The African writer, however forcefully he may attack the elite groups (while supporting the aspirations of 'the wretched of the earth'), is faced with a double-pronged dilemma. It is a dilemma that tends to inhibit any simple expression of ideological dissent through literary production, experimental or otherwise. Firstly, it is evident that literature is not only a product of social consciousness, a medium for projected change. However urgently the African writers may feel the need for a socio-political renaissance (and of that there is no doubt), they are also producers of commodities which are sold on a market for profit, producers within a system towards which they show dissent, producers of works (often selected by foreign publishing houses) that are fed back into the system of ideological control. Secondly, the base of potential support - the audience - for these expressions of indictment is manifestly limited by the fact that the works are written in a language reaching, in Africa, only a minority group (often a small 'radical-intellectual' section), with limited ability for acting out the vein of protest.6 There are contradictions, then, in production and in reception. In view of these problems, how do we place these literary manifestations of dissent within a coherent field of debate? Are all these works merely token outbursts from a humiliated group of ideological eunuchs? I suggest that they are not. For the circle of ideological control can still be broken or, at least, dented.

The potential for this breaking of the ideological circle resides in the particular nature of the writers' position as dissenters. Specifically, it proceeds from the fact that the broad thrust of their dissent is directed towards the very concept (meaningful socio-political change) that underwrote the Uhuru ideals. At this point, we need a clearer model of the ideological matrix. Following Terry Eagleton's appropriate theoretical guidelines,7 we can detect the existence of an objective ideological formation in modern 'black' Africa. This formation - the dominant ideology of the ruling elites - stresses African Independence, African Socialism (whatever, from place to place, that is taken to imply), the values of private enterprise within a collective framework of varying significance, the fight against neo-colonialism and the vestiges of white rule, the relief of poverty and inequality, with the blessings of self-rule: in general, an attempt to hold onto the expectations generated by Independence.8 Works of African literature likewise lay stress on such objectives. However, the emphasis in the literature is not so much on the ideological objectives themselves but on their non-correspondence to reality. We find, then, the overwhelming presentation of corruption in the body-politic, of alienation (evidencing a gap between ideals and action), of a lack of cogent socio-political directions, of aberrant leadership and general decay (The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born). Consequently, the literary texts represent an ideological sub-ensemble penetrating the dominant ideology. Yet we must again differentiate here. For, in the main, it can be seen that the predominant thrust of the majority of these works tends to insist on a return to 'authentic' Uhuru ideals. Thus, although they are undoubtedly texts informed by dissent, they continue to approximate to an existing ideological norm.9 In certain significant cases however (such as Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons), genuinely new directions are posited, radical directions having little in common with the expression of dissent and despair. Wole Soyinka's work is of particular interest here. To compare the earlier novel, The Interpreters (with its essentially surface indictment of some facets of Nigerian society) with the later Season of Anomy (produced after the radicalising prison-experience, with its Aiyero alternative) is to sense the gradual releasing of received ideological bonds that is reflected by a difference in both ideology and literary form. Similarly, in Two Thousand Seasons (compared with an early work, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born) the dominant ideological assumptions of the era are under attack and imaginatively routed. Two Thousand Seasons clearly proceeds from the realisation that to dent the dominant ideology is to create the potential for breaking the power of the group that ideology serves. Centrally, then, it is a matter of the specific mode of insertion (and the qualitative impact) of the ideological counter-attack. The selection and reworking of generic literary forms, as part of the process of this ideological insertion, thus takes on a larger significance. To rework the forms is to reshape the ideology that informs them.

It is no coincidence that texts within key generic groupings carry the main thrust of ideological penetration. The received formal potentialities of certain genres clearly provide the most advantageous avenue for socio-political debate within (and from) African literature. They stand as central forums for articulating an alternative ideology to that of the ruling groups. Uniting ideological inquiry with the formal experimentation that attempts to understand (to redefine) the ideology from which they proceed, certain literary works point to alternative ways forward. To restate: these are forms specifically adapted to the articulation of socio-political alternatives, aimed at the dynamic rendering of those alternatives. The historical novel (Two Thousand Seasons) surveys the past in the service of the future. Soyinka's novelistic autobiography (The Man Died) works to create a new metaphor of self, a new stance for both the individual and the collective within a highly innovative formal structure. The realist novel (Season of Anomy), with its attempted imaginative reconciliation of discordant ideological strands, makes possible a function of judgement on the imitative presented world of its narrative. The allegory (Okara's The Voice), that natural mirror of ideology, presenting oppositional relationships in literary form, works on the motif of the socio-political quest. The polemical poem attempts a fusion of poem and polemic (Okot p'Bitek's "Song of Lawino" and Soyinka's "Apres la guerre"). The satirical play (Kongi's Harvest and The Jero Plays), with its satiric assault on aberrant leadership and on the irrationality of the dominant ideology, takes up the social and revolutionary potential provided by a value-debating forum. In The Man Died and Two Thousand Seasons, particularly, there is a radical reshaping of both ideology and literary form. These two texts clearly break the ideological norm in the act of new formal production.

Is this, then, the African counter-attack? Despite the rigorous achievement of these texts, it is important to emphasise that the imaginative ideological reshaping projected by their literary forms remains just that - imaginative. The gaps in the socio-political circle of control are still small. Literature alone will not widen them greatly. It will (through the constant reshaping of its ideological concerns) continue to manifest the internal and external contradictions to which it responds. Therein lies a large measure of the interest and significance of these passionate spaces.


1. "The dead end of Uhuru worship", Busara, 4, No. 4 (1971), p. 64.

2. Mwangi, Kill Me Quick (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1973).

3. "Letter on art in reply to Andre Daspre", in Lenin and Philosophy (London: New Left Books, 1971).

4. The modern African novelist, for example, makes a 'choice' from basically European forms (if not modes). With the ideology of the neo-colonial system stemming largely from the same source, there is a dual circumscription.

5. Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: Methuen, 1976), p. 24.

6. Both these problems have been identified by African authors themselves. See "Meeting of African writers", Transition, 9 (vi), No. 50, pp. 14-15.

7. Eagleton, "Reply to Francis Mulhern", New Left Review, No. 92 (July-August 1975), pp. 107-8 and Criticism and Ideology (London: New Left Books, 1976).

8. Expectations, one must add, at least partially generated by the 'retreating' colonial powers themselves.

9. S.O. Mezu's Behind the Rising Sun and Ali Mazrui's The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, for example, both clearly belong to this category. In the case of Mazrui's novel, it can be seen that formal experimentation does not carry with it any inevitable guarantee of ideological innovation.

New: 13 May, 1996 | Now 2 April, 2015