Saturday, February 9, 2013

War on Kwani? marks the death of literary engagement and rise of spite

The easiest, most frequent and most spiteful criticism levelled at Kwani? is that its writing is ‘of poor quality’, or that it is somehow ‘sub-literature’.  Photo/FILE

The easiest, most frequent and most spiteful criticism levelled at Kwani? is that its writing is ‘of poor quality’, or that it is somehow ‘sub-literature’. Photo/FILE  NATION MEDIA GROUP

By STEPHEN DERWENT PARTINGTON [email protected]

The joy of every new issue of the Kwani? miscellany is the predictable spectacle of B-list academics queuing up in our otherwise admirable newspapers to deliver their verdicts on the publication’s ‘quality’, its validity as ‘Literature’.

But I am firmly of the opinion that the problem with Kwani? is not at all a problem inherent in the miscellany itself, for anyone who reads it with open-minded generosity will see something of worth in it; rather, the problem with Kwani? is a recidivistic problem with Kenyan literary criticism and theory.

The easiest, most frequent and most spiteful criticism levelled at Kwani? is that its writing is ‘of poor quality’, or that it is somehow ‘sub-literature’.

Some of this criticism can quickly be disposed of, where it obviously comes from the pens of minor lecturers from obscure universities who have some personal beef with the Kwani?-ites following past run-ins with these eloquent young editors and writers. Such ‘critics’ are simply mean hacks, of course, who like to wash their extraordinarily dirty linen in public. However, as a whole, the criticisms need a more considered rebuttal.

You see, as we all know, there was a time, back in the late 1960s, when a dedicated and responsible collection of literary thinkers famously nailed their theses to the door of the University of Nairobi’s then disreputable ‘English Department’, beginning a cultural revolution that saw this department renamed the ‘Literature Department’.

With this, they occasioned a thorough reformation of the then EuroAmerican canon of texts. Indeed, many recent scholars point to this event as one of the first in a series of canon-busting movements that subsequently circled the globe.

I’d agree. For example, regardless of the arguable deep misogyny of some of those who effected the UoN’s little ‘revolution’— a misogyny that the excellent Evan Mwangi has drawn attention to in earlier Nation articles — it is probable that the fine feminist expansion of the literary canon in the Western academy might not have been possible without Ngugi’s and Taban’s courage; likewise, writers from ‘other cultures’ might not have entered this canon as early as they did.

Back then, we were trailblazers, and the wider world of literature gave a damn about us, as they are staring to do again as a consequence of the Kwani?-ites and other new writers.

Yet, I’m interested here not only in what Taban and Ngugi initiated as a new canon — a canon that soon became ossified and dull in its obsession with what Justus Siboe-Makokha has called its ‘negrocentrism’ — but equally in the colonial hermeneutic practices they were rebelling against.

They were rebelling not only against a mere list of culturally-inappropriate primary texts such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Conrad and TS Eliot, but also against a strand of modernist literary criticism stemming from Britain, and specifically from Cambridge, which centred almost exclusively around one man, Cambridge’s rather peculiar, but massively influential FR Leavis.

Leavis was one of those decidedly anti-intellectual intellectuals, one who refused to fully theorise his ‘theory’, and who believed that literary criticism need not be in any way systematic or organised.

His ‘moral formalism’, as it is sometimes called, rested upon the spurious assumption that all ‘right-minded academics’, by which he meant his fellow lecturers at Oxbridge, could mystically sense ‘great literature’ when they read it.

Were better placed

According to Leavis, academics such as himself who had made it into the hallowed spires and stacks of Oxbridge were somehow better placed than the common reader to have ‘true judgment’.

Their simple status as dons in what he considered to be the two best universities in the world — one of which I had the misfortune to attend for postgraduate studies, somewhere in between more interesting institutions — gave them certain superior rights to pontificate ex cathedra on matters of literary ‘quality’, which is something that they of course undemocratically defined for the edification of the unwashed and illiterate masses.

Now, a major problem for us here in East Africa was that all of the texts sanctioned by Leavisite ‘moral formalism’ — a literary mode of reception that insinuated itself into our corner of the continent through Makerere and other such Oxbridge wannabe universities — were penned by dead White men of a certain class and geographical location.

Leavis’s Great Tradition, while giving a patronising nod towards the ability of a handful of American writers, at least those who abandoned America and moved to Britain — was exclusively British, even English, in its chauvinism.

Apart from George Eliot — she who donned a man’s name — no women featured in Leavis’s canon; nor did any young writers; nor did any writers of colour; and so on. Literature (capital ‘L’) started with Chaucer and ended with TS Eliot, period.

Literary criticism in our universities thus became an integral part of the vile colonial process of cultural imperialism. Obviously, this would not do in the 1960s in East Africa. However, it seems that a certain strain of Kenya academic is once more, through our newspapers, trying to position odious moral formalism as valid.

We are seeing theory-ignorant, snooty appeals to ‘quality’ made by self-appointed experts, self-appointed merchants of taste and judgment, whose only qualification to teach is a Masters in Sycophancy achieved under the direction of an equally jaundiced supervisor.

If I were given to hyperbole, I’d probably call these folk treacherous kickers-in-the-crotch of those chaps who wisely reshaped our literature departments in the 1960s. How quickly we forget?

How quickly we return to valorise the theories of the very colonisers whose culture worked to oppress us many decades ago? And how spitefully we do it, relishing our role as the New Imperialists?

The lazy complaints are all the same: our Kwani?-types are ‘young’, they don’t consider literature’s ‘grand themes’, they are ‘urban-not-rural’ — yes, the right-winger, Leavis, loved his organicism — they do not write according to the classic Aristotelian structure of ‘beginning, middle and end’, they are ‘popular’, they fail to submit to the censoriousness of gate-keeping ‘university experts’, they care about ‘minorities’, they are ‘vulgar’, they don’t use ‘pure linguistic forms’, they do not promote ‘traditional morality’.

It is only a short step from this to the sort of arrogant and empty snobbery which might complain that Kwani?-ites drink beer, not brandy, or that they prefer to listen to local musicians rather than Elgar. At the heart of establishment moral formalism is an appalling faux-elitism and a right-wing pessimism with regard to society and its direction.

Perhaps, to be fair, we need to contextualise this return to ancient and opinionated forms of English moral formalism. It’s probably not enough to just rail at our academics for being lazy or poor at thinking, as some enthusiastic responses have tended to argue, exacerbating the confrontation.

Yes, some of the new and mushrooming private universities are of dubious worth for all manner of reasons. But we also have some fantastic, theoretically brilliant young academics in our old and new universities. So, to blame only the academies as isolated institutions would be unfair.

Rather, the answer may well lie in our country’s political climate, which is inescapable for any of us, even those who might seek refuge in ivory towers, for, try as we might, we can’t isolate the academy from the wider society in which it and its members participate.

I suggest that the political disillusionment that started sometime soon after the Narc victory of 2002, which deepened during our post-election violence of 2007-2008, and which has re-emerged with a vengeance during these days of fudge-coalitions and mangled nominations, coupled with the admirable increase in our freedom to speak — which to my mind is our greatest post-Moi achievement — has led to our less reflective academics simply articulating their own personal pessimism, lazily, sourly.

They are no longer the ‘antennae of the race’, as their darling modernist, the fascist Ezra Pound once put it, but are rather the nerves that quiver weakly in response to society’s shifts.

Theirs is a pessimism that seeks retreat and refuge in spurious myths of cultural purity and quality as counties replace mono-ethnic districts; that finds comfort in the false allure of the simple days of the rural past while now, in contrast, the frightening prospect of urbanisation looms for them under the new Constitution; that seeks, like our politicians, not to find the good in others, but to backbite and bitch; that worries about the future and the direction in which this new generation might take us with their new-fangled ‘democracy’ and, ugh, ‘Rights’.

In short, our ‘new moral formalism’ is a new conservative cowardice, an anti-reform return to the snobberies of the past when and where we could as a middle-aged middle-class mix with our own and choose not to see the slums, the young, the poor, women, and all those others whose vulgarity offends us.

And while we might, in the best of worlds, hope that our academics might rise above the simplistic, petty awfulness of elitism and go ‘public’ as intellectuals, it is clear that we cannot rely upon them — or, at least, we can no longer rely upon many of our so-called ‘literary intellectuals’ to show the solidarity with us that their forebears did.

Instead, we can expect the silence, in effect a turning away, that we saw from them in 2007-2008. They have not only thrown us to the wolves; to them, we are the wolves, the disgusting young who would bite and rip at the mythical glory of the world they believe we should inhabit. But we do not inhabit that world. Yet. And the Kwani?-ites know it.

Consequently, they write the world as it presently appears to them, with all its joys and flaws, and they do this well. The harping and carping academics who criticise Kwani? and other literary productions do so because they are sour, because they are disillusioned, because they and their once great discipline of ‘Literature’ have failed — Kenyan academic AO Amoko has rightly called them embittered at literature departments’ decline in prestige — and because they so desperately fear that we will see them in their nakedness.

Overcompensating, they shout about how handsome their own clothes are. While Kenya moves on, they talk among themselves, sadly, angrily, grumbling as the new generation of writers tries to do something different, something engaging that they, they silently realise, are failing to do.

Thankfully, most of our talented new writers have learnt how to just walk away, as I now shall: plod, plod, plod.

Mr Partington is a teacher and writer from Machakos County

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