AT age 70, Abiola Irele's presence in the world of African letters and, more generally, in African intellectual circles, is a commanding, venerable one. As the essay that I wrote 20 years ago in commemoration of his 50th birthday clearly demonstrated, even at that age, he had already achieved this status. I believe that I also clearly demonstrated in that essay the depth and breadth of interests and the unique expressions of sensibility and sympathies that all came together to consummate that achievement.
Twenty years later, and on the occasion of his 70th birthday, I would like to pay homage to this older friend, mentor and compatriot by returning to that earlier essay to critically update two crucial aspects of the claims and projections that I made in the essay. These are, respectively, the very contents and substance of Irele's work, and the epistemological rupture that seemed to have emerged in his work when that essay was written. Needless to say, updating the first aspect relating to the contents of his intellectual production and professional interests is a much more straightforward affair and for this reason, it is that issue that I will first address in this short commemorative essay.
At 70, Irele continues to be extraordinarily productive and there is not the slightest sign of slowing down on account of age. Indeed, one could persuasively argue that as much as he continues to consolidate and even expand on longstanding preoccupations, he is also breaking new grounds. Of the former, one of the most important elements pertains to the issue of orality and its connection to written African literature in particular and, more generally, modernist African intellectualism. One of the earliest expressions of the topic in Irele's work is to be found in an influential essay on D.O. Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola and Wole Soyinka. In the years since that essay was published, Irele has considerably developed ideas on the continuities and reconfigurations between orality and written African literature that powered that essay on Fagunwa, Tutuola and Soyinka. Today, Irele's ideas on this topic, as expounded in several essays and in parts of the book The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora (2000), constitute one of the most important analytical and interpretive axes of the debates on the topic. In other words, at the present time, it is nearly impossible for anyone writing on the topic not to engage or cite Irele if the person wishes to be taken seriously. This is equally true of the subject of Negritude and its complex and ambiguous legacies: Irele has returned again and again to this topic and who dares broach the subject now without some of sort of genuflection to him, whether in positive acknowledgement or in a critical or even iconoclastic vein?
The interests and research agendas that indicate a movement into new, perhaps seminal grounds in Irele's work in the last two decades are equally impressive. Perhaps one of the most impressive here is a fascinating essay on music provocatively titled "Is African Music Possible?", an essay in which both the erudition and the insights go well beyond the pale of standard or conventional literary-critical analysis.
Only on the basis of what this particular essay reveals about Irele's intellectualism can one place in a proper context the areas to which he took the journal, Research in African Literatures, when he became its editor after the untimely death of the late Richard Bjornsson. Research in African Literatures is the most influential and authoritative scholarly journal on African literatures in the world and Irele's editorship of the journal was as distinguished as it was highly imaginative. Just to give an instantiation of this point, in a special edition of the journal on postcolonial studies that was published about four years ago, the range of essays and articles published included items that were devoted exclusively to African literatures and other articles which had only the most tangential and indirect relationship to African literary studies, the rationale for their inclusion being the comparative light which their inclusion could shed on the postcolonial condition everywhere in the world, Africa inclusive. I do not think I am putting the matter too strongly if I remark that no editor of the journal before Irele would have taken such a decision and carried members of his editorial board with him on the decision.
One particularly significant marker of Irele's continuing intellectual and professional vitality even as he enters the eighth decade of his life is the fact that right now, he has a number of ongoing projects the completion of which the entire field of African literary studies worldwide is agog with excited anticipation. For instance, after the publication of the landmark two-volume Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literatures that Irele co-edited with Simon Gikandi (2004), he is at work on an omnibus critical anthology on the African novel for Cambridge University Press. He is at the same time working on a Routledge Encyclopedia of African Thought of which I have the privilege of being Irele's co-editor. If it is impossible to overstate how much work Irele and I are putting into this project, it is obligatory for me to state here that the initiating ideas for the project were Irele's, not mine, and that he brought me in as co-editor in order to place such an important project under the collaborative supervision of two scholars who come from different generational cohorts and perhaps reflect diverse ideological and intellectual sympathies. This point provides an appropriate note on which to now broach the second of the two issues that I set out to engage in this commemorative essay, this being the radical rupture which seemed to have emerged between two currents in Irele's work in the mid-80s. These two currents are, on the one hand, a synthesizing, totalizing impulse which seeks connections, integration and even wholeness between diverse and even contradictory expressions in literature, society and history and, on the other hand, a predisposition to seeking out and even privileging dissonances and dislocations that cannot be wished away, that indeed often become intrusive to personal and collective consciousness.
Twenty years later, what can one say in critical elucidation of this issue? Has Irele's work in the last two decades swung decisively in one direction or has he forged a synthesis between the two currents? Put simply and directly, is Irele still enthusiastic or sanguine in his "praise of alienation"?
The most uncomplicated and unambiguous response to this question would be to say, simply, that a critical review of Irele's work in the last two decades would show that he has made a tactical retreat from the direction "alienation". Conversely, it could be argued that there never was an epistemological rupture of any consequence in Irele's work up to the mid-80s and since that time. In that case, what we should perhaps do is reformulate the issues completely. However one chooses to approach the matter - and this is not the context in which to examine the problem in any detail - what cannot be denied is the continuing relevance and deepening of the large-scale historical and social forces which pushed Irele in the first place to make allowance for the possibility of a "beneficial", chastening embrace of alienation as a response to the dilemmas and challenges of modernity in Africa and other parts of the developing world. In his intellectual forays into this Hegelian-Marxist conception of a positive, potentially transformative view of an embrace of alienation, Irele had presumed that one could and ought to make a distinction between it and an altogether different and wholly negative and crippling form of alienation. Certain movements and currents of local and global histories and advanced critical theory in the last few decades have made the possibility of this separation questionable. Consequently, Irele has, in my opinion, been forced to make a tactical retreat from trends that began to appear in his work in the mid-80s. Let me explain.
Consider first what we may describe as the commonality, the banality even, of alienation and cognate forms of experience such as fragmentation, dissociation and dislocation in the last two decades. The expressions and manifestations of this phenomenon are so rampant and pervasive that one can only be selective in one's enumeration of the phenomenon. Here's one instance that we are living through right now: the multi-ethnic, multicultural nation-state in post-independent Africa and many parts of the developing world is just hanging on as a historic mode; many states are collapsing, some have failed completely and self-maiming civil wars of extraordinary savagery are rife; struggles over democratic political governance are framed in terms of devolution or restructuring along the lines of ethnicity or regionalism or a combination of both. To illustrate this point from Nigerian experience, as Eddie Madunagu has shown, calls for a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) are routinely confused with a Conference of Nationalities in which the loudest voices are those of politicians who, if they are not themselves members of irredentist organizations are nonetheless looking over their shoulders at the ideological and programmatic platforms of organizations like the Yoruba Council of Elders (YCE) or the Odua People's Congress (OPC), Ohanaeze Indigbo, the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF), the Middle Belt Forum, the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, etc, etc. Here's another totally different but not unrelated manifestation of this phenomenon of the banality of alienation and dislocation: the tertiary institutions of our continent and other parts of the developing world are emptied of some of the most productive academics and intellectuals and in the particular case of contemporary African literature which bears personally and directly on Irele and this writer, it can no longer be assumed that "the writer and his audience live in the same place". This was Achebe's testy riposte to foreign critics who had insinuated that he had a larger readership abroad than at home. This extraordinary kind of dissociation is based on the fact that the most important scholarly journals, the most influential scholarly associations of African literature are based outside the continent. Here's yet another manifestation of the pervasiveness of alienation: many parents, elite and non-elite, compel their children not to speak the indigenous mother tongues, even as the forms and levels of spoken and written English become more and more substandard and surreal, opening up for sober reflection the probability of present and future chasms at the heart of sociable communication in our national community. A final example of the phenomenon, possibly the most widespread: evangelical religious movements preach chiliastic messages of a coming Armageddon; the millenarians among them preach that we are not now, never have been, and never will be at home in this world and the very last days are upon us and the end of time and of the world is approaching; the pragmatic and worldly sects also admit that we are not at home in the world and there is much suffering in the land and among the multitudes, but they peddle or sell Christ as a magician, a miracle worker who will heal and cure, here and now and in this world, all afflictions, material, psychic, spiritual.
If I have not made Irele's relocation in the late 80s from the Nigerian university system to the United States the locus of how he has in the last twenty years resolved the tension in his work between the contending currents of integration and alienation, it is precisely because I have in mind the broad profile I have drawn here of the phenomenon of the commonality of alienation and dislocation. Let me put it rather bluntly: even those of his colleagues and compatriots who never left, who never relocated, even they are not spared of the effects and consequences of the phenomenon of the banality of alienation and dissociation on a colossal scale. That said, I now come to an aspect of the phenomenon that bears more professionally on Irele's work in the last two decades. I write here of Irele and postmodernism, or rather of Irele in relation to postmodernism; more precisely, I write of Irele and his recoil from postmodernism. What does this entail?
In the present context, postmodernism - a very imprecise term which connotes many and diverse meanings to different people - is best presented in the light of the following extrapolation that I am making from its complex views and postulates on language: In language and discourse, whether or not you're using your mother tongue or the language(s) of your colonizers to express your selfhood and its location in the world, the same thing is happening at a fundamental level and this is the fact that you are not expressing a pre-given, preexistent reality; rather, what you are doing is constructing the self, together with its being and becoming, at the very moment of speaking or writing. This is of course a profoundly counterintuitive view of how language works since most of us believe, in tune with common sense, that it is not only or even at the moment of speaking or writing that our selfhood comes into being; rather, we typically think in essence we are prelinguistic, that we exist before and after language, and that there are many other things beside language that express us. But this is precisely the point of postmodernism: it asserts that all the things we take as the roots and foundations of our being are illusory, essentialized constructions which either become effective or are contradicted and negated at the moments and sites of enunciation. This is why postmodernism is said to be anti-foundationalist and anti-essentialist. At its most uncompromising and counterintuitive, it deconstructs every known foundation on which we think we have to base our conceptions of selfhood and identity: God, Progress, Nation, Race, Revolution, Class, Gender, and above all, Reason. One of the justifications for this radical critique is the assertion that every one of these foundationalist rubrics has been used in the past to exclude and divide peoples in order to dominate, exploit and dehumanize. But it cannot be denied that postmodernism is the name and the sign of a radically uncompromising valorization of alienation and dissociation. And this is why both its proponents and its critics speak of a theoretical anti-humanism as postmodernism's response to traditional or conventional modes of bourgeois or liberal humanism.
I think it was not so much Irele's relocation to the United States in the late 80s in itself but his encounter with Africanist and other postmodernists and the tremendous intellectual influence that they wielded that led to his tactical retreat from the embrace of a limited, minimal and "beneficial" mode of alienation in the mid-80s. The important names here are Valentine Mudimbe, Achille Mbembe and Paul Gilroy in their assaults on the use of "race", "class" or "nation" as foundations for the identity of African or Black diasporic studies in any and all disciplines, together with their many supporters and disciples, especially among the younger generation of Africanists. I submit, conjecturally, that it was his encounter with this intellectual formation that sent Irele's work in the last two decades in the direction of intensification, clarification and affirmation of continuities between Africa and its diasporas, in time, space and being.
Perhaps in time Irele will frontally engage the postmodernists, since his work of the last two decades everywhere shows that it is haunted by them, especially with regard to their influence. Meanwhile, it must be acknowledged that this indirect encounter has had a most salutary effect on Irele's work of the period precisely by making him to rethink carefully and productively the arguments of his earlier work with regard to the things that link Anglophone and Francophone, oral and written in the literary and cultural experiences of the Black peoples of Africa, Europe and the Americas. Another way of putting this is to say that Irele is probably the greatest of contemporary thinkers and intellectuals who come in the line of what has been described as "race men", this being intellectuals whose lifework consisted primarily in the elucidation and affirmation of the traditions of thought, imagination and spirit of Africa and its diasporas. Indeed, among many of his ongoing works-in-progress is a monograph with the working title of Black Utopia. I have heard parts of this work presented as public lectures and can report that contrary to the postmodernist spirit of the age, the term "utopia" in this work is deployed without ironic disrespect, indeed with a certain measure of celebration, even if this is all executed with Irele's characteristic intellectual rigour. It says much that an intellectual of the highest order like Abiola Irele can remain utopian at the age of seventy - without apologies and without naivety.
Salut, teacher, mentor, compatriot and friend!