Monday, April 24, 2006

Linguistic revolution

I have just left a seminar from a Literary theory class in which we were discussing Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. We got into quite a debate over two points, firstly, and quite predictably, the idea that all European literature is inherently racist, and secondly, the validity of the author's call for African writers to write in indigenous African languages. The first caused some understandable tension, not least because it is an entirely white class of mainly literary scholars. The general debate, again predictably, focused on authorial intention, though there was a brief digression in the direction of semiotics, which I felt was the most useful point. I am convinced that what Ngugi meant was that the trace of a language that identifies "black" with darkness, evil and the negative and "white" with light, good and the positive, etc. Is what makes all cultural production both in English, and at this time, inherently racist. That that racism rests partly with an audience that is intensely race aware is, however, largely ignored. That "black" and "white" are identified as races, rather that that colours which could, technically (though perhaps not practically) be dissociated from race, are symbolically identified with good and evil, is the reason for the difficulty of this trace.
The idea that African writers should write in native African languages, therefore, is linked to the idea of the tyranny of the trace, as discussed above. Ngugi suggests that African writers should be enriching their own languages through producing work in them, and also implies, though he doesn't state this explicitly, that their use of colonial languages buys into the subordinating, complicating trace of these languages. While the discussion we had suggested that subordination centers around economic imperatives, a point that I agree with, I would suggest that the subordinating influence of the trace is more relevant.
I still disagree with the original point that African authors should be writing in indigenous African languages because this is nothing more than a call to obscurity. In an ideal world, sure, but in the present time, English really does seem to be it. How can one engage a hegemony without working in its own language.
An besides, this delegitimates the work African writers and scholars (myself included) who consider English, or French, or Arabic, our home languages.
It all comes back to my frequently reiterated point about covert resistance. If the challenge is too great, the point is lost!

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