A Scholar Takes Stock of his Paradoxical Identity at a Nexus of Cultures
Toyin Falola’s Decolonizing African Knowledge: Autoethnography and African Epistemologies
Peaks of Creativity
Climbing peaks after peaks of knowledge, a scholar may be like the Fulani Kaidara, perceiving endlessly unfolding vistas, yet drawn towards them in the spirit of the seeker for a treasure at a point that disappears into the horizon. He will never get there, but wonderful things will be discovered along the way, ” a new road or a secret gate, which none have seen but we alone,” as J.R.R. Tolkien depicts similar aspirations in The Lord of the Rings.
The polymathic Toyin Falola navigates a galaxy of cognitive domains, shaping new insights, illuminating old ones, a projectile moving towards a destination both deductible from its trajectory, and mysterious, a path not fully known, even to the traveller, on account of the unpredictable core of the creative spirit.
Wenzel Hablik “Sunset, Mont Blanc”, 1906
Oil on canvas, 96 × 96cm
Itzehoe, Wenzel-Hablik Foundation.
An impressionistic evocation of the wonder of mountain climbing, as the climber ascends the summit to perceive a universe ablaze with solar radiance and alive with the vitality of mountain masses seeming to float above the luminescent blue of the sky.
Realistic images, of the climber and the mountain he has ascended, blend with impressionistic depictions, the mountains and solar light as viewed by the climber, physical forms painted to suggest the emotional and imaginative impact they generate rather than their exact physical appearance. Stark colour contrasts harmonize to foreground the solitary majesty of the climber facing the mysteriously powerful force of nature’s beauty.
Vistas of knowledge may also so unfold for the seeker, as idea collocations assume unexpected shapes within the prepared mind, zones of awareness expanding beyond anticipation, a mapping of explorations within various cognitive universes akin to migrations between history, literature, art, economics and other disciplines, configurations constituting the Falola transdisciplinary universe, the archive that is the human being and his expressions, a ”restless bolt of energy,” adapting Wole Soyinka in A Shuttle in the Crypt, a dynamism that Falola’s Decolonizing African Knowledge : Autoethnography and African Epistemologies reflects upon.
Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju
Comparative Cognitive Processes and Systems
“Exploring Every Corner of the Cosmos in Search of Knowledge”
A summative exploration of Toyin Falola’s Decolonizing African Knowledge : Autoethnography and African Epistemologies, Cambridge UP, June/July 2022, through text and images with accompanying text, amplifying the thrust of the main text.
Image and Text: Peaks of Creativity
Self Questioning at a Height of Achievement
Image and Text: Integration and Expansion
Challenges of Epistemic Positioning
Image and Text:The Mystique of Scholarship
Image and Text: Forms of Archive
Paradoxes of Cultural Affiliation
Cultural Integration Rather than Cultural Differentiation?
Images and Text: Knowledge Spaces and Objects
The Book’s Cover
Image: Cover of Toyin Falola’s Decolonizing African Knowledge : Autoethnography and African Epistemologies
Expanding Access to Scholarship on Africa
Self Questioning at a Height of Achievement
Toyin Falola’s Decolonizing African Knowledge : Autoethnography and African Epistemologies, is published at last, in digital form, awaiting the print publication. Extracts are accessible on Google Books.
What is the maestro going to say here?
How will he make his palpitating self the centre of discourse, weaving scholarly reflection around his person, life and individual material environment, that being the vision of the autoethnographic pursuit that drives this book?
Having climbed to the top of the mountain, to a pinnacle of his career, soaring through a complex of texts, a universe of ideas he has generated in various genres, from scholarly analysis and exposition to poetry and autobiography, in practically all fields in the humanities and social sciences as constituting African Studies, the traveller from Ibadan, the city of refugees, the war camp turned cosmopolis, is asking ”who am I”, ”where am I?”, ”where am I coming from?”, ”where am I going to?”, ”in whose name do I exist as a scholar and writer?”
Integration and Expansion
The circle, evoking concentration of powers, as the potency at its heart pulses with the energy of the muscular figure crouched within, Owusu-Ankomah’s celebration of the human form as embodiment of a vast scope of creative forces, physical and cognitive, this image an entry into his Microcron universe, a quest for the plurality of possibilities constituting cosmic being and becoming.
Falola might not share with the mystics an aspiration to cognitive unity within cosmic symmetry, the distillation of possibilities in the convergence of mind and cosmos or a hope to perceive the heart from where variegated threads are spun or come together, substances, qualities and their interrelations perceived as ”one simple flame,” an infinite net whose diamond vertexes reflect each other in an unending unity within individualities, images of totalistic awareness from Dante Aligheiri’s Divine Comedy and the Buddhist Net of Indra.
Falola’s open ended hungers, however, also strive towards an understanding of his multiple investigations as they may be integrated within the universe of knowledge, a central task of Decolonizing African Knowledge: Autoethnography and African Epistemologies, the self as both conduit and spinner of diverse knowledges achieving centrality in this work.
Ovalon ( Salt)
1996, Acrylic on Nettel, 24 x 18 cm
Image source: Owusu-Ankomah
Doubly enmeshed in the Western academy, having been groomed as a scholar and conducting his professional life in terms of its protocols, as well as living his scholarly identity in its North American heartland, Falola, like Abiola Irele in “The African Scholar,” seems to have been wondering what the ultimate significance of his scholarship is, between the cultural, political and economic cosmopolis represented by the West, and the global economic and academic hinterland demonstrated by Africa, and particularly Nigeria, from where he travelled to the West, and in which his scholarship is grounded.
This book might be Falola’s most decisive response so far to those questions, his most forceful effort in coming to terms with the paradoxical existence of an African scholar in the Western academy understood as both a disciplinary configuration and a spatial and institutional location.
He has examined similar issues, explored in general terms, in perhaps more than one edited and perhaps sole written book, most recently in Decolonizing African Studies, and in a number of essays. Now, he devotes a sole authored book focused on his individual identity, to the project. This book is an act of reckoning with the confluence of African and Western legacies that shape the Africa scholar in the effort at developing an authentically African identity, here studied through a focus on the author himself as exploratory matrix.
Challenges of Epistemic Positioning
The paradoxical existence of such a scholar is highlighted, not only by questions of accessibility of his work in economically and library challenged Africa, as opposed to the West, where such problems do not exist, but in the question of through whose spectacles is Africa, the subject of his research, is being studied. Through whose eyes, whose conceptions of the nature of knowledge, how knowledge should be explored and presented, are these explorations being conducted?
Responding to these questions, such a traveller as Falola must construct a new epistemic home for himself, since a purely African epistemology cannot be valid for him, his mind having been shaped at the intersection of encounters with classical African knowledge systems and the Western educational system, moulding him as a child of colonialism, as a student within it, and, eventually, as a scholar, as a defining agent within that system.
The Mystique of Scholarship
Collage by myself of image stills from the official music video of ”Sadeness”directed byMichel Guimbard,
with Director of Photography of the film, Jérôme Robert, from the Enigma albumMCMXC a.D.
Scholarship as revelatory potential, evoked by the figure shocked into perplexed awareness through insight represented by the ray of light reaching him from a mysterious source as he sits writing at his desk, the magnificent ruins emerging around him as he sleeps at that desk in the midst of the task of constructing ideas in writing, an architectural structure both grand and shaped by spaces of ruin, suggesting here the perpetual reconfigurative process constantly undergone by cognitive edifices, akin to Falola’s grasping with the remnants of memory in Decolonizing African Knowledge, seeking to shape something permanent out of the mutabilities of memory and its interpretation, the elaborately elegant inkpot from which the antiquated pen draws ink for writing and the ornate desk at which the scholar writes suggesting the grandeur of the arts of thought and expression represented by writing.
Video at Enigma Space
Video info from ”The Story Behind Sadeness Part I Video,” by BT Fasmer – August 26, 2014
New Age Music Guide
In Decolonizing African Knowledge, the author mobilizes the resources of autoethnography in his ongoing quest to contribute to the restructuring of African Studies, a body of disciplines in which he has worked for decades, in the context of a restructuring process privileging the voices of those being studied in the investigation of African history and societies, as well as its systems of thought.
This is a process within which his entire scholarly career has been conducted and into which he was born as a student in the wake of the Ibadan History School of which he is a direct heir, as represented by his historical scholarship and signalled by the compelling chapter on Ade Ajayi, a doyen of that school, in Falola’s In Praise of Greatness.
This process is also demonstrated by the creative ferment actualized by his fellow writers in the chain of transmission represented by classical and post-classical Yoruba verbal art, since some of his poetry is partly in Yoruba, and by post-classical African writers, from the second wave of these writers, from Chinua Achebe to Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Ezekiel Mphalele and beyond, to more recently emerged creatives.
Beyond those earlier achievements, beyond the creation of a place for African literature, African philosophy, African centred creativity in contemporary African art initiated by various schools, from the Zaria Rebels to the Oshogbo school, among others, a central aspect of the current struggle is that of examining the spectacles through which African Studies are perceived and the construction of appropriate frames, of styles of exploration for the task, and, even as Falola is indicating, of approaches to expressing these perspectival configurations, hence Falola’s invocation of the validity of multiple expressive genres as scholarly vehicles in this process.
Forms of Archive
His metaphoric interpretation of the idea of an archive is one of Falola’s most significant ideational achievements. In “Ritual Archives,” in The Toyin Falola Reader (Pan African UP, 2018, 913-937), he dramatises the dynamism and multi-expressive possibilities of knowledge systems, exemplifying this by portraying human embodiment of the intersection of ideas and images.
In Decolonizing African Knowledge, the personalisation of cognitive systems at the interface of the self and structures of knowledge represented by archives is taken further. This is done through a meditation on the cognitive syntaxes, the structures of knowing constituting his own person, in dialogue with the ideational values of the material forms that surround his life, such as his own works of art and forms of clothing, dramatisations of his relationship with Yoruba culture, a prism through which this culture may be perceived in its filtering through a particular intelligence, grounded in the wealth of scholarship on the subject, and, in his study of the aesthetics of Youba hairstyles, going beyond the extant scholarship.
Falola’s crafting of his identity as both critical scholar and immersive in various cognitive universes and diverse expressive forms is consummated in his engagement with the concept of the archive as loaded with dynamic possibilities unlocked through interaction with the human mind. These creative values demonstrate the self as itself an archive, a structure of potential unfolding in the stories constituting life’s progression and its interpretive horizon.
The image above is a collage by myself suggesting Falola, in a superb picture from Samuel Adegboyega University, reflecting on a detail of Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Shrine Set. The Onobrakpeya installation evokes humanly constructed sacred space as a convergence of values. These values are represented by human creativity and evocative forces suggesting the ability of the human person to bring into being something beyond its own constructive powers. This non-human Other is the numinous, beautiful and sublime, arcane and uncanny, puzzling, majestic and profound, its power embodying sacred mystery, leading the mind to zones that cannot be fully captured by human interpretation.
The installation foregrounds Onobrakpeya’s Ibiebe script. It thereby suggests the forms of evocation through which the sacred is actualised in various contexts, particularly in Southern Nigeria, his inspirational matrix. These are the natural, evoked here by raffia leaves; the figural, indicated by figurines and the textual, indicated by the Ibiebe text. Falola and Onobrakpeya share the struggle to refashion the sacred in diverse forms, distilling ancient African wisdoms in new creativities, constructing a monumental body of work across decades in a lifetime of unendingly varied expression.
Paradoxes of Cultural Affiliation
A challenge Falola may be facing in his construction of what he describes as his own formulation of an African epistemology may be described as that of distinguishing the fish from the environment within which it moves and has its being, adapting Pauline Biblical language, in the spirit of Wole Soyinka’s expression from Death and the King’s Horseman, “the river is never so high that the eyes of a fish are covered.”
Falola’s articulation of the autoethnographic approach he is adopting is seamlessly lucid in its ideational structure and promise of methodological sensitivity and penetrating sophistication, as a corrective to the possible loss of the personal in the analytical, of empathy in the purely critical, of imagination in the ratiocinative, represented by more mainstream scholarly approaches.
He proposes mobilizing more subjective, qualitative resources in tandem with more intellectual qualities in order to activate a more robust realization of human cognitive capacity than is made possible by the current emphasis on the intellectual and the impersonal that have long shaped the character of the globally dominant Western knowledge system, central to its towering edifices of knowledge.
How is a scholar dedicating himself to reworking how his own peoples’ way of being is perceived and expressed to manage the fact that the very instruments through which this way of being is being studied were created by the system he wants to differentiate such studies from, a system which enables his own efforts at disciplinary recreation? Enablement through scholarly tools and through professional reward from the Western academy. Reward to the scholar expanding the boundaries of that academy, demonstrating the creativity of the academy’s own self-recreation, a self-recreation represented by the emergence of new approaches to learning absorbed within the scholarly mainframe.
I wonder to what degree the book is sensitive to the question of whether, rather than positing the Western academy and mainstream Western thought as an Other, as an opponent in this struggle, is it not more realistic to see it as an ally, and perhaps, even in its earlier, cruder forms, as making possible the kind of trans-African, internationally mobile systems of studying Africa, grounded in widespread literacy, a system which did not exist before the destructive/creative act of colonisation, in spite of the African achievements in various disciplines in its classical period, a perspective of the kind advocated by Abiola Irele in “In Praise of Alienation.”
Falola’s privileged interpretive framework is autoethnography, an investigative approach that, in its current use in scholarship, derives from movements towards recognising subjectivity and individuality in Western thought. May one not describe his initiative, therefore, as creating a hybrid epistemology at the intersection of Western and African thought, as mediated through himself, the point of intersection?
To what degree are the styles of thought and expression Falola privileges in this book different from pre-Enlightenment Western thought, for example, before the more restrictive codification of styles of thought and expression in Western scholarship, and the resonances of these cognitive approaches with similar styles of thought and expression across the world, across time, orientations increasingly gaining recognition in integration into Western scholarship?
In arguing for a plurality of cognitive and expressive styles in scholarship, does Falola’s advocacy not evoke the achievement of Plato at the foundations of Western thought, integrating critical analysis, dramatic dialogue within vividly painted settings and mythological and parabolic narrative in creating what such an eminent Western scholar as A. N.Whitehead describes as the greatest works in Western philosophy?
Are the more holistic cognitive systems Falola argues are either African or may be derived from African thought not similar to what a US philosopher such as David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World is arguing for or Fritjof Capra has been developing between his Tao of Physics and his later The Systems View of Life, orientations increasingly gaining traction within Western cognitive communities? May such perspectives not be more broadly understood as globally occuring cognitive orientations ancient to the human race as they are distinctively expressed in various contexts?
Perhaps Falola’s achievement in this book may be understood as the construction of one expression of a globally emergent epistemology and expressiveness, ancient yet in process of recentring in the Western academy, dramatised by Falola in relation to his integration of cognitive and expressive forms evident in African and Western contexts.
Cultural Integration Rather than Cultural Differentiation?
Understood this way, the infinitely rich symbolism of the crossroads in African thought, specifically in Yoruba Orisa and Voodoo cosmologies, may be evoked, in terms of a liminal space that is neither purely African nor purely Western, a zone of ”new, refreshing insights and lights, the edge of knowledge that is always approaching and withdrawing approach, a site that opposes binary opposition, oscillating between spheres of knowledge, the uncanny non-place that promises to birth the underivably new in history” as that collage of lines from Nimi Wariboko’s The Split God: Pentecostalism and Critical Theory (SUNY Press, 2018, ix-x) articulates in a different context.
Within the convergence of intellect and experience, of sensation and thought, of the personal and the communal, of individual, group and global cartographies through which Falola navigates as he scours the roads of history, he tries to see the world as an African, but an African whose identity resonates with the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor’s poignant lines, “Sew the old days for us, our fathers/ that we may wear them under our new garment/ After we have washed ourselves in the whirlpool of the many rivers’ estuary.”
Knowledge Spaces and Objects
The arcane, the archive and the textual, wonders of learning in the search for knowledge, immediate or mysterious, are evoked in this collage of images by myself from the TV series A Discovery of Witches, inspired by Deborah Harkness’ novelistic trilogy of the same name, an image network suggesting, for me, Falola’s words from his essay ”Ritual Archives”, ”Objects speak and communicate without words.” (920)
The collage evokes for me the sensitivity to hermeneutic codes, their mysterious possibilities, the magical pull of the archives, such as libraries, where they are stored as books and scrolls, and the embodiment of universes of knowledge by the human being, themself an archive, values animating Falola’s Decolonizing Knowledge: Autoethnography and African Epistemologies, African Spirituality, Politics, and Knowledge Systems: Sacred Words and Holy Realms and his essay ”Ritual Archives.”
These values are suggested for me through the collage’s evocation of the film’s visual dramatization of the mesmeric spell of books, libraries, scientific laboratories and scientific knowledge, weaving together the allure of mysterious knowledge represented by the occult and the power of critical thought developed through modern scholarship and science as these forces intertwine in Western history.
These ideas are projected in the collage by images of the torn pages of a book, top left, depicting the unity of various forms of being, the fragments all the more precious for the disappearance of the book in spite of centuries of quest for it, a quest driving the novels and the TV series; the witch Satu Järvinen, amazed in her entry into the Witches Archive, top right and bottom right, her presence in the luminous and mysterious beauty of the space evoking an idea of magical culture as humanly embodied supernaturality and knowledge of spiritual formulae embedded within a rich textual universe mapping and transmitting knowledge across generations; and the witch Diana Bishop, bottom left, weaving the threads constituting the tapestry of existence, dramatising the idea of human aspiration to reach beyond the material world into perceiving and shaping the metaphysical constitution of the universe.
Falola’s lines from ”Ritual Archives” incidentally speak to the visual and ideational force of the film and the books, artistic forms dramatising Harkness’ engagement with the diverse cognitive worlds active within Western civilisation at varied levels of privileging, at different times, of the constituent parts of these worlds, suggestive of the cognitive multiplicity Falola works towards foregrounding in his contributions to African thought:
By ritual archives, I mean the conglomeration of words as well as texts, ideas, symbols, shrines, images, performances, and indeed objects … huge, unbounded in scale and scope, storing tremendous amounts of data on both natural and supernatural agents, ancestors, gods, good and bad witches, life, death, festivals, and the interactions between the spiritual realms and earth-based human beings.
… ritual archives constitute and shape knowledge about the visible and invisible world (or what I refer to as the “non-world”), coupled with forces that breathe and are breathless, as well as secular and non-secular, with destinies, and within cities, kingships, medicine, environment, sciences and technologies. Above all, they contain shelves on sacrifices and shrines, names, places, incantations, invocations, and the entire cosmos of all the deities and their living subjects among human and nonhuman species. ( 913)
In varied ways, a countless number of sages, priests, devotees and practitioners created oral and visual libraries, which are linked to ritual complexes and secular palaces. Subsequently, cultural knowledge has extended from the deep past to our present day. It is through their knowledge that histories and traditions were constituted, while identities were formed, and philosophy as we know it emerged. (914)
Decolonizing African Knowledge opens with a preface outlining its vision of using personal history in exploring culture, summed up in this forceful, representative passage, which I break into two paragraphs:
Decolonizing African Knowledge: Autoethnography and African Epistemologies builds a connection between autoethnography and how Africa is and can be studied. The narratives it presents, which also foreground its argument, suggest that an insider’s perspective can be merged with the rigor and principles of research to re-determine how African epistemologies are pushed to the center of global knowledge production.
These perspectives can take any form, from autobiographical narratives to archived/archival and culturally relevant items. The book demonstrates that archival materials can serve as the basis for critical introspection on African culture. In doing this, individuality is expanded and retooled to reflect on the larger cultural framework. ( xvi )
The book continues with a powerful prologue exploring the logic of reflective autobiography as a mode of cultural investigation. The prologue emphasises issues of intersection between temporal, spatial and cognitive itineraries, a person’s journey through space and time as constituting their life’s journey and the manner in which their understanding grows through this spatio-temporal progression, demonstrating the confluence of these outward and inward developments.
This totality embodied in the self constitutes the individual as an archive of possibility, actualised and potential. This conception of the person as an unfolding narrative dynamic embodying various possibilities constituting an archive complements Falola’s compelling conception of a ritual archive as a conglomeration of concrete and abstract realities, of forms and what they signify, in ”Ritual Archives”.
The rest of the book works out the implications of this dynamic archival trajectory, as demonstrated through the confluence between various aspects of the author’s life and that of his country, Nigeria, focused through various texts, in diverse genres, by himself and others, as well as in his reflections on aspects of the culture of the Yoruba ethnic group, his own ethnicity, mediated largely by works of art he owns and pictures he has taken.
I find the interweaving of autobiography, cultural observation and analysis and national history compelling. The integration of personal and group history and cultural forms is a synthesis in which Falola’s originality is particularly luminous.
The third part of the book, on Yoruba arts as demonstrators of Yoruba thought, does not explicitly employ this approach, but demonstrates intimate and penetrating engagement as it takes the reader seamlessly from the shores to the depths of the subject. It does this in language both direct and potent, sophisticatedly sensitive and ideationally powerful, endlessly reverberative of interpretive possibilities. Realms of thought are condensed into linguistic vehicles that clearly project meaning as they signal the overflowing interpretive possibilities they embody.
The exploration of these values reaches its climax in the penultimate chapter in that section, the chapter on the philosophical significance of the Yoruba arts of female hairstyling. The chapter is awesome, a canonical achievement in art criticism and theory, marshalling an immense scope of information on the practice and styles of Yoruba hairstyle art, in dialogue with a spectrum of Yoruba aesthetic canons in their unity of metaphysics, theory of being, and epistemology, theory of perception, filtered through Falola’s own original reflections, creating a magnificent philosophical tapestry that demonstrates, with transformative force, the intersection of philosophy and public life, the unity of the philosophical, the spiritual, the imaginatively constructive and the everyday, that is a hallmarks of classical African cultures, here projected both in terms of its endogenous understanding and through further reflections that splendidly foreground the penetrative force of those originary ideations.
The photographs in that chapter, in colour, are impressive, powerfully illustrating the artistic dynamics and their philosophical implications. The canonical force of the text, though, something that will endure forever as an art critical document, would be even better complemented by photography of a comparable level, such as
Johnson Donatus Aihumekeokhai Ojeikere’s (J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere) images of Nigerian hairstyles.
This chapter demonstrates the full scope of a profession far beyond the elite professions introduced by Western culture, cultures represented by white collar jobs. The ideational network the chapter develops, in harmony with its poetically luminous description of the practical executions of the art of Yoruba female hairstyling in its individual and social embodiment implies the possibility of formalised education in this art in terms of practice and theory.
I hope, however, that such an innovation will not negatively impact the democratic nature of this art as something anyone disposed to it can learn without having to subject themselves to what, for some, could be the rigours of scribal and intellectual learning.
A very ambitious book. Exciting and learned. Densely ideational and yet rich with autobiographical reflection.
The Book’s Cover
Cover of Toyin Falola’s Decolonizing African Knowledge : Autoethnography and African Epistemologies
The book’s cover image, however, I consider problematic in its conception and execution, unfitting for such an ambitious, carefully constructed and powerful book, the depiction of the various images in the visual tableau not demonstrating the sophistication required for a book of this calibre.
I can’t find a helpful associative logic justifying the cover design of a larger than life size image of the author surrounded by relatively diminutive human figures. What idea is being suggested by this image? An adulatory group looking up at the author in his grand poise? An author whose eyes are held aloft away from those congregating at his feet, therefore not suggesting any identification with them, an imperial aloofness?
I don’t see the quality of execution of his features and hands, along with those of the group of people of different races around him, as justifiable in terms of any artistic strategy, whether minimalist, abstract or realist, unless in terms of an immature style of artistic expression. What might be an effort at suggesting the global significance of Falola’s work through an image of a staff topped by a map of the world is strikingly valid but weak in the imaginative creativity of its execution. I hope the book will one day be reissused with a cover closer in power to the ambition and force of the text.
Expanding Access to Scholarship on Africa
What is to be done to make such work as this more accessible to those populations the work talks about? There is a need to work out how this book will also be published in Nigeria, under contract from the publishers Cambridge UP, or with permission from Cambridge, if I’m using the right terms. There is a need to publish in Africa, making readily available to Africans, such high quality books on Africa published around the world.