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LGD 2003 (2) - Robert Spencer




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Optimism of the Intellect and Optimism of the Will: The Unseasonable Art of Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Robert Spencer

PhD Candidate,
Department of English and Comprative Literary Studies,
University of Warwick, UK


The work of the Kenyan novelist and intellectual Ngugi wa Thiong'o eschews many of the orthodoxies prevalent in contemporary literary theory. His unseasonable willingness to 'speak the truth to power' contrasts with the widespread acclamation of postmodernity as a wholly novel economic and cultural regime. Fredric Jameson's influential Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism characterises our era as one in which reification has become total, in which capitalism, having seen off all alternatives, is now the only game in town. But Ngugi is altogether less convinced that capitalism reigns unopposed. The twin emphases of his oeuvre - that domination invariably elicits resistance and that the work of decolonisation is incomplete - point to the omnipresent fallibility of the present system. Ngugi is an inveterate foe of the approved success story and an unabashed practitioner of history from below. His thought is akin to Walter Benjamin's advocacy of the unfinished struggle of those jilted and forgotten by history's official account. He hopes that the recollection of past struggles will fire the indignation and strengthen the sinews of those who today take on power and injustice. In his commemoration of those who fought for Kenya's independence and in his advocacy of a universal, humanist ethos, Ngugi construes decolonisation as Jurgen Habermas once construed modernity itself, as an unfinished project. Ngugi's unflinching socialism does not so much pre-empt the future as clear a path for it by unmasking the fallibility of the present, by disclosing the blemishes and flaws of its incompleteness.

Keywords:Socialism, Postmodernity, Modernity, History, Resistance, Decolonisation, Humanism, Optimism

Editorial Note

This paper was presented at the 'Postcolonial Studies Workshop on the Oeuvre of Ngugi wa Thiong'o' at the University of Warwick in February 2003 on the occasion of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's stay as Visiting Fellow of the Humanities Research Centre, University of Warwick.We would like to thank Neil Lazarus and Benita Parry for permission to publish the proceedings of the workshop.

This is a conference paper published on 20 January 2004.

Citation: Spencer, R, 'Optimism of the Intellect and Optimism of the Will: the Unseasonable Art of Ngugi wa Thiong'o', Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal (LGD) 2003 (2), <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

Ngugi's wa Thiong'o's commitment to socialism is as unflinching as it is unseasonable. Flying in the face of governing creeds and dominant orthodoxies, this Kenyan novelist and intellectual is a thorn in the flesh of the powers that be. Time and again, Ngugi has stressed the links between the world at large and literature's ability to interrogate it, to find it wanting and to put in its stead alternative visions of emancipated futures. The final paragraph of the preface to his 1996 Clarendon Lectures refers us to 'the complex tensions between social and imaginative powers, between the art of the state and the state of the art' (1998, p xi). Hence, he tells us, his overall title: Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams. The pen and the gun engage, not because the former is mightier than the latter, but because the pen, put simply, has lessons to teach us. It drafts alternative scenarios which it encourages us to put into being. Guided by the imagination it delineates visions of the possible that enable us to gainsay the actual. Literature composes dreams and sketches utopias. It is a weapon in the arsenal of resistance because it allows us to stave off the blandishments of conformity, of the official account and the approved history. Ngugi brandishes the pen in the service of the voiceless, as a means of resistance and not as a biddable hireling of the prevailing dogma. He exemplifies the ideal of the intellectual who takes upon himself the task not of reciting orthodoxies but rather, as Edward Said famously put it, of speaking the truth to power (1994, p 71).

What I would like to stress here, however, is the extent to which I believe Ngugi's tenacious refusal to bend the knee to intellectual and political orthodoxy poses a crucial challenge to much of the unexamined dogma that has become entrenched of late in literary studies. The more I have sought in my own work to maintain what is perhaps a somewhat unfashionable faith in the power of works of literature to engineer a radical critique of the status quo the more I have come up against a prevailing scepticism about this vocation. This scepticism is a consequence, in the first instance, of the kind of eloquent dejection one gets in, say, Fredric Jameson's influential work, Postmodernism. Here Jameson argues that a new cultural era has dawned which coincides with the new economic regime of what he calls late capitalism. The term is Ernest Mandel's, though the political fatalism is not1 . What distinguishes postmodernity from the preceding epoch of modernity is, for Jameson, quite simply the sheer lack of political alternatives it offers to the governing system. Artworks have lost their critical force because in an epoch in which capitalism's frontier has finally been closed there is no longer any alternative form of social life upon the horizon. The whole gargantuan regime of late capitalism has dilated exponentially across the globe; defiant remnants of the past have been mopped up and auspicious remnants of the future have been bought off and defused. Capitalism is now the only game in town. Jameson describes a consensus in which 'distance in general (including 'critical distance' in particular') has very precisely been abolished' (1991, p 48). He bewails 'the extraordinarily demoralizing and depressing new global space which is the "moment of truth" of postmodernism.' (1991, p 49).

But the fatalistic metropolitan Marxist does not see what Ngugi has known all along. Capitalism is not simply a rolling catastrophe that obliterates opposition. It does not enforce its dictates unopposed. On the contrary, for Ngugi it meets with resistance every step of the way. The only constant in the history of Kenya, for Ngugi, is the people's resistance to foreign domination. For me this is most exhilaratingly enumerated in A Grain of Wheat, which charts the history of Kenya's resistance to British imperialism. At each successive stage of the imperial project there is a riposte, an agency, however muffled and ineffectual, that gainsays the will of the coloniser. 'History,' Ngugi has written, 'is subversive'. (Ogude, 1999, p153). For me this assertion has always called to mind the 'history from below' of E P Thompson who, in the preface to his seminal The Making of the English Working Class, portrayed the task of the historian as the 'rescue' of forgotten voices and buried alternative narratives from what he called 'the enormous condescension of posterity' (1986, p 12). It should ring bells too for those who have ever pondered the efforts of the Indian Subaltern Studies Group to excavate the buried traces of subaltern agency from the elitist narratives of colonialism on the one hand and nationalism on the other. Ranajit Guha directs the attention of the radical historian to those 'vast areas in the life and consciousness of the people which were never integrated into their hegemony' (1996, pp 5- 6). Ngugi's corpus of literary, critical, political and theoretical work is just such a genealogical or archaeological undertaking. With its emphasis on struggle and resistance it is able to contrast the mainstream account of history, written from the vantage of triumph and conquest, with the less heeded minority report. In Moving the Centre Ngugi himself calls these conflicting accounts 'the approved official history' on the hand and, on the other, 'the real living history of the masses' (1993, p 98).

Ngugi's writing, then, unashamedly affiliates with the downtrodden and with the unwritten history of their resistance. Its absolute antipode, therefore, could be former Kenyan President Moi's injunction against any historical documentation of the Mau Mau struggle. In effect, Ngugi wishes to commemorate the struggle because in his eyes it has not been concluded. This is the second great emphasis of his oeuvre: that the work of decolonisation is incomplete. He stands alongside Masao Miyoshi in his conviction that '[o]urs is not an age of postcolonialism but of intensified colonialism, even though it is under an unfamiliar guise.' (1993, p 750). In view of this emphasis Ngugi can have no more apt theoretical confrère than the German critic Walter Benjamin, whose advocacy of what he called the 'tradition of the oppressed' aimed to commemorate a narrative of struggle that is in constant danger of being buried and overwhelmed by the powers that be. 'Only that historian,' writes Benjamin, 'will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious' (1992, p247).

That the enemy has not ceased to be victorious is, I would like to suggest, one of the most important lessons Ngugi can teach us today. But his conviction that this enemy is always countered and opposed is equally valuable. Oppression invariably calls into being a clandestine underground of discontent and revolt. There are thus hidden possibilities germinating furtively in the midst of the actual, possible futures faintly stirring in the midst of a purportedly intransigent present. This is a crucial lesson for literary study too. What is truly great, to my mind, about Ngugi's accomplishment in A Grain of Wheat is the wistful tone of incompletion with which it ends. It is a novel that furnishes few answers, though its questions are legion. Its defining images - the as yet unplanted grain of wheat and Gikonyo's final promise to carve a woman, as he puts it, 'big with child' - portend a future which they decline to forecast. They intimate the germination of an impending tomorrow that has not dawned. In Ngugi's hands, then, literature does not so much pre-empt the future as clear a path for it by unmasking the fallibility of the present, by disclosing the blemishes and flaws of its incompleteness. Mumbi's final peroration: 'People try to rub out things, but they cannot. Things are not so easy. What has passed between us is too much to be passed over in a sentence. We need to talk, to open our hearts to one another, examine them, and then together plan the future we want' (Ngugi, 1986, p 213). This blunt iteration of the historical burden of colonialism, which we all to greater or lesser degree carry round with us, reminds me of nothing so much as Aimé Césaire's determination, in his Discourse on Colonialism, not to forget the appalling chronicle of colonial butchery because, he writes, 'this steaming blood, these cities that evaporate at the edge of the sword, are not to be so easily disposed of' (1972, p 19). The past, for Ngugi, is unfinished business.

Ngugi's work brings home two crucial lessons. Firstly, that exploitation and imperialism are always met with resistance. As such, they can never reign unchallenged. They are, in effect, inherently fallible. Capitalism is everlastingly menaced by its successor. Because it is already insolvent it can be wound up. Recent events in Kenya itself perhaps demonstrate that oppressive systems cannot install themselves in perpetuity. Secondly, what I have called the unfinished work of decolonisation, primarily it is true for nations still coming to terms with underdevelopment and colonisation, but also for all sites of potential resistance in an increasingly global set-up has relevance for us all. 'In terms of the structures of domination, subordination and resistance,' writes Ngugi, 'a common global experience is emerging. Gradually a vocabulary of concepts of domination and revolt become part of a shared intellectual tradition.' (Ngugi, 1993, p 13). We are all distanced from the levers of power and are prey to the habits of mind instilled by an alien system. What Kwame Nkrumah called neo-colonialism is, of course, principally a matter of direct and unmitigated exploitation but it is also an ideology which instils certain habits of mind, ways of thinking that might cause us to acquiesce and submit. '[I]ts most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world' (Ngugi, 1994, p 16). Ngugi, most famously in his decision to forgo the use of English in his fiction, has taken it upon himself to rid the mind of this taint, this extraneous blockage on critical thought. Crucial, however, is the extent to which this message rings true for all his readers irrespective of their native tongue. When imperialism goes global resistance follows suit.

This points to what I believe to be the deepest thing in Ngugi, the innermost core of his thought. In common with Frantz Fanon's campaign for 'a humanism … built to the dimensions of the universe' (1967, p 125) Ngugi is that most endangered of creatures in critical circles, both a humanist and a universalist. 'The collapse of neo-colonialism and all the international and national structures of domination, dependencies, parasitisms (Nkrumah's last stage of imperialism), would see the birth of a new world, the beginnings of a truly universal human culture.' (Ngugi; 1993, p57). Ngugi's unashamed humanism is, I think, the fundamentally modern - as opposed to postmodern - task with which his work charges us. As someone who is engaged in calling into question many of the hackneyed shibboleths that pass today under the rubric of postmodernity I for one find his humane attempt to read capitalist modernity against modernity - its humanist values against the practice of imperialism - indispensable. Modernity for Ngugi is not something to be precipitately disavowed. It is rather, as Jurgen Habermas famously averred, an 'unfinished project' (Habermas, 1996, p 51). By informing us that resistance takes shape not outside the system but rather at its very core Ngugi bequeaths tentative grounds for optimism. The status quo is fallible; it provokes both resistance to its power and the tools with which to dig its grave.

Antonio Gramsci famously characterised the disposition that the radical thinker ought to assume in unpropitious circumstances as pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will (1971, p 175). In an age in which a corrosive pessimism acts as something of a synonym for defeatism I think Ngugi allows us to assume a more promising stance, something like an optimism of the intellect as well as of the will. I can think of no more fitting praise for Ngugi's work than to say that it gives us grounds for optimism. It belongs with what Raymond Williams called 'resources of hope' (1989).


1For Mandel 'the ideology of 'technical rationality' [the belief that total reification has ironed out capitalism's internal contradictions] mystifies the reality of late capitalism by claiming that the system is capable of overcoming all the fundamental socio-economic contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. The present work has sought to show that late capitalism has not, and cannot, accomplish this.' (1998, pp. 505-6).


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