Katongole: How postmodernism hurts Africa

In ‘Postmodern illusions and performances’, the fourth essay in A Future for Africa, Emmanuel Katongole argues that postmodernism is unlikely to prove the blessing for Africa that many had hoped. He accepts that it continues to have some usefulness as an intellectual style that casts suspicions on ‘classical notions of truth, reason, identity, and objectivity; of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives, or ultimate grounds of explanation’ (Eagleton). But in its various cultural expressions it barely constitutes an advance on the crudest forms of modern western self-interest as most starkly illustrated by Kurtz’s ‘final solution to the problem of difference’ in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: ‘exterminate all the brutes’ (74-75).

Katongole focuses on three areas of what he regards as destructive postmodernization in Africa.

The first has to do with the much acclaimed postmodern celebration of difference. Far from seeing this as protective of African interests, he argues that

there is something sinister about the postmodern celebration of difference, which at the same time renders differences ineffectual or inconsequential. In other words, the ability to recognize otherness and difference everywhere might just as well amount to an ironic shielding of oneself from listening or attending to the particular and historical claims of the “other”. (76)

Travel and the expropriation of cultures and cultural artifacts by the postliberal media in the interests of ‘info-tainment’ have stripped differences of their moral and historical claims; they become merely aesthetic – ‘another aspect (commodity) for the postliberal individual to enjoy, especially if he lives in the rich countries of the North’ (79). In this respect, the postmodern celebration of difference ‘turns into nothing but a monologue about difference’.

Secondly, in their eagerness to participate at least at some superficial level in a postmodern global economy, African countries have fallen into the trap of ‘leap-frogging’ over immediate economic realities ‘through different theories and programs of “development” to Western patterns of life and consumption’ (81). Under the modern evolutionary paradigm economic development could be plotted in a predictable linear fashion. Postmodern reality, however, is decentered and unstable, offering a very poor basis on which to address basic local issues of ‘cassava, millet, or goats’. In a distracting global economy, millions are condemned to a very insecure localized existence, which Katongole believes goes a long way towards accounting for Africa’s widespread ‘rebel madness’ (82).

Thirdly, Katongole returns to the theme of ‘condomization’ as an expression of a postmodern ‘playful nihilism’ (see also Katongole: AIDS, suspicion, nihilistic playfulness, and new creation).

…condomization is not just about the convenience of disposable condoms, but more importantly, it is about the popularization of a certain form of sexual activity, i.e., one detached from any serious attachment or stable commitment, but which serves to promote a certain nihilistic playfulness of the unstable, decentered and postliberal self. (84)

The postmodern approach to issues of sexuality, which insists on the right of a person to choose what to do with his or her body, necessarily erodes familial, tribal and church traditions which insist that ‘freedom does not come naturally, but is the result of training into the relevant practices and habits or virtues’ (85).

Under these conditions, the best hope that African Christians have for survival lies in relocating themselves themselves within forms of community which are ‘able to offer not only resistance, but an alternative to the nihilistic playfulness of postmodern culture’.

This can be misunderstood. Katongole makes the important point that fundamentalist religious groups in Africa, both Christian and Muslim, have issued a call to resist the corrosive effect of postmodern culture by returning to traditional forms of community. What these groups lack, however, is the capacity for a critical and selective response – that is, in the language of Hauerwas, a ‘tactical’ response.

Hauerwas shows that with the collapse of Christendom the church finds itself in alien territory, immersed in postmodern culture, with no ground to call its own into which it might withdraw for safety. Given this, the church cannot pursue a ‘strategy’ in the sense described by deCerteau: it cannot define its own secure territory, a place of power, from which strategically to deal with the ‘other’. Rather the church must think and act ‘tactically’ on foreign territory.

What this means for Hauerwas is that the church cannot now rely on its ‘institutional existence’: it must provide its members with the skills to survive critically and selectively in a postmodern world, but as part of a ‘community whose story is powerful enough to sustain their tactical existence with hope’ (88).

How we tell this story – how we interpret the biblical narrative – is another matter. Katongole merely observes that the narrative character of scripture is often ‘obscured in an attempt to objectify scripture as “Word of God,” which can be mined for individual tips for salvation or for some kind of “revealed morality” ’ (88-89). But the observation is a crucial one, important both hermeneutically and theologically: we cannot make sense of scripture by abstracting it from the history of the community that created it and which is shaped by it.

That is to say, scripture is not only an account of a community’s journey with God, it in turn creates a “community of memory” – people capable of reading and reliving the same story by placing themselves in the biblical tradition. This overall political context not only endows scripture with moral authority, it allows us to see that the reading of scriptures is not just some pious exercise, but a political exercise, and even a subversive form of politics. (89)

That seems to me a necessary premise today for biblical interpretation. The danger it presents is that the biblical narrative will be reduced to moral and sociological dimensions because we have trouble conceiving a political narrative that is genuinely evangelical – or for that matter genuinely biblical if the story is not told with sufficient attention to detail. But if we can oversee an uninhibited convergence of the political and the ‘evangelical’ (in the full narrative sense of the term), I think we will have the basis for a robust post-Christendom theology.