A Scholar Takes Stock of his Paradoxical Identity at a Nexus of Cultures: Toyin Falola's Decolonizing African Knowledge : Autoethnography and African Epistemologies : Anticipatory Review

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Oluwatoyin Adepoju

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Jul 1, 2022, 4:19:16 AMJul 1
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                       A Scholar Takes Stock of his Paradoxical  Identity at a Nexus of Cultures

                                                                        Toyin Falola's 

                         Decolonizing African Knowledge : Autoethnography and African Epistemologies

                                                                    Anticipatory Review

                                                                            
                                                 

                                                                                                
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                                                                                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. 


                                                          Image Above

                                                                                                              

                                                 Wenzel Hablik  “Sunset, Mont Blanc”, 1906
                                                            Oil on canvas, 96 × 96cm
                                                       Itzehoe, Wenzel-Hablik Foundation.
                                          Image source: Art900. Text identifying image: Akg-Images

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

                                                                           Compcros                                       

                                                   Comparative Cognitive Processes and Systems   

                                            “Exploring Every Corner of the Cosmos in Search of Knowledge”


                                                                                   Abstract


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.

 


Contents

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     
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?''



                                                              
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                                                      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.

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                                                                    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.


                                                                                       

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                                                                 The Mystique of Scholarship

        Collage by myself of image stills from the official music video  of ''Sadeness'' directed by Michel Guimbard,
        with 
Director of Photography of the film, Jérôme Robert, from the  Enigma  album MCMXC 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.



                                                                                          

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                                                                        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?


                                                        
                         13-Collages153.jpg

                                                   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 KnowledgeAutoethnography 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)









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 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. 


A very ambitious book. Exciting and learned. Densely ideational and yet rich with autobiographical reflection.

The Book's Cover                      
     

                                                                                                         

                                                        51ZzH9pXy9L._AC_UL604_SR604,400_ ed.jpg






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.

 


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