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The African Novel of Ideas: Philosophy and Individualism in the Age of Global Writing by Jeanne-Marie Jackson

Reviewed by Joseph Hankinson, University of Oxford

The African Novel of Ideas: Philosophy and Individualism in the Age of Global Writing, Jeanne-Marie Jackson. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2021. £70. ISBN: 9780691186443.


The inaugural question of Jeanne-Marie Jackson’s The African Novel of Ideas (2021)—‘[w]hat kinds of reading and which writers and texts would be privileged by viewing the African novel as a source of thinking about thinking, a site of agile negotiation between private minds and public spaces’ (2)—announces a timely and provocative intention: determining the opportunities for literary study that arise from ‘viewing the African novel as the vanguard of the broader literary world, instead of its marginal “other”’ (28). This, in the context of this particular book, means ‘peeling away the sticky associational layers that have accreted to the notion of “individualism” in postcolonial-cum-globalist literary and theoretical debates’ (3). Targeting liberalism, and reminding readers that there ‘is something deeply presumptuous about assuming that liberal ideals […] are intrinsically or irredeemably Western’ (8), Jackson’s book probes the relationship between individualism, narrative, philosophy, and comparison within the works of a range of African writers.

            Across its chapters, Jackson’s incisive readings establish unequivocally that ‘African philosophy provides an essential though largely untapped resource for thinking about individualism as a tool for demarcating thought’ (4). The African Novel of Ideas shifts focus away from preoccupations with the interrelationship between the philosophy of individualism and colonial history, offering instead an approach capable of remaining sensitive to individualism’s specifically African trajectories, to Africa’s counter-individualisms, but also to individualisms that have developed apart from Europe entirely. As such, the book represents ‘an effort to move beyond liberalism’s conception as a prepackaged collusion between the integrous self and the civilizational violence of Western colonial rule, looking instead to the philosophical individual’s purposive intellectual formation by African writers whose moral and political terms are largely homegrown’ (7). Jackson stresses, consequently, ‘what appear as narrativized instances of both “reason” and “autonomous selfhood”’, but instances ‘whose complicity with imperial models is not foreordained’ (7-8).

            The book is divided into two parts, with a separate introduction, conclusion, and epilogue. Part One, ‘National Horizons’, comprises two chapters: ‘Ethiopia Unbound as Afro-Comparatist Novel: The Case for Liberated Solitude’, and ‘Between the House of Stone and a Hard Place: Stanlake Samkange’s Philosophical Turn’—both chapters focusing on ‘novelists working in anticipation of national independence’ (19). Part Two, ‘Global Recessions’, also contains two chapters: ‘A Forked Path, Forever: Kintu between Reason and Rationality’, and ‘Bodies Impolitic: African Deaths of Philosophical Suicide’—the focus now on ‘novelists working right in the belly of the hungry “global literature” beast’ (19).

            If well-trodden critical pathways have emphasised how individuals are ‘instrumentalized by the African novel’, treated as ‘stand-ins for a social situation’, then Jackson—across these chapters—seeks to foreground situations in which the African novel’s individuals are instead ‘instrumental of some analytic function within it’ (31). This begins in Chapter One, which focuses on the ‘pan-Africanist lawyer, politician, and man of letters’ J. E. Casely Hayford (1866-1930), and considers, more generally, ‘comparison as an Afro-originating intellectual model that insists on lateral, conceptually grounded exchange, with the individual philosopher serving as a kind of lever’ (32). What will be of particular interest to readers of this journal is this chapter’s outlining of a decolonised, ‘full-fledged, systematic, Afro-originating comparative practice’ rooted in the work of Ghanaian philosophers, as well as Jackson’s considerable ability to weave between accurate and compelling textual commentary and incisive theoretical intervention (40).

            Jackson continues to read Casley Hayford’s novel Ethiopia Unbound (1911) ‘as an unheralded work of decolonial literary comparison’—one which shares a comparative ‘methodology’ with the later work of Wiredu and Appiah (60). Comparison and comparability ‘are, respectively, the novel’s method and its achievement, or its means and its end’ (49). Balancing  comparison—‘depicted as an argumentative strategy of a distinguished individual mind’—and comparability—‘the projective fulfillment of cultural equality in an independent Ghanaian state’—Ethiopia Unbound provides a compelling and clear example of Jackson’s overall focus (49). Designed ‘to systematically graft a liberal-developmental temperament onto an anticolonial Afrocentric politics’ (50), the novel’s ‘capacity to imagine both radical transformation and orderly argumentation, both the practical demands of racial politics and the philosophical expression of transracial ideas’ (52), generates rich and important discussion of the tensions, as well as concordances, between liberalism’s Euro- and Afro-centric conceptual worlds. Jackson concludes the chapter by situating more recent (and familiar) writing in the Anglo-Fante tradition—namely, Ayi Kwei Armah’s Fragments (1970) and Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy (1977)—in contrastive relation to Ethiopia Unbound.

            Chapter Two turns attention to the Shona writer and intellectual Stanlake Samkange, and what Jackson calls his ‘commitment to individual character as the locus of new national institutions’ (25). Throughout, Samkange’s fiction is read through and in relation to his philosophical texts; the latter sometimes the subject of formal close reading. For instance, the chapter’s discussion of Hunhuism or Ubuntuism (1980)—which Samkange co-wrote alongside his wife, Tommie—links the work’s attempt to connect ‘Zimbabwe’s independence to a universally replicable way of being’ to ‘a narrative strategy of “zooming out” in time and space’ (90). Marshalling ‘a sense of cultural embeddedness that’, nonetheless, ‘avoids the trap of so-called ethnophilosophy’ (92), Samkange favours a ‘representational mode that is individualized but not subjectivized’ (96): a mode in which ‘the movement from the self to the collective appears as an act of differentiated generalization rather than opposition’ (97). This chapter, also featuring discussion of novels by Dambudzo Marechera and Stanley Nyamfukudza, underlines the often complex interplay and tension between philosophy and fiction, individualism and collective representation, independence and political engagement, within Zimbabwean fiction and philosophy.

            Chapter Three focuses on Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s novel Kintu (2014), contrasting its engagement with a range of ‘African debates about tradition and modernity’ (26) with the work of the philosopher Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, which foregrounds a ‘version of reason at once situationally embedded and universally attuned’ (109). Kintu, for Jackson, is especially important because it captures the ‘impasse’ between ‘two expressions of Africa’s place in the world that both seem progressive in their own way’ (107). On the one hand an expression that ‘suggests that pluralizing what should be self-evident claims—to being modern, or universal—substitutes relativistic “difference” for Africans’ full-fledged humanity’; and on the other a rejection of ‘singular nouns that have long been used to humanize some and not others, seeking to build more inclusive terms of critical exchange’ (107). As such, the novel, ‘at its core’, is ‘about whether and how reason can accommodate cultural plurality’ (107). Jackson’s readings establish Kintu firmly as a philosophical novel capable of enlightening and nuancing questions of nationalism, pluralism, and individualism.

            Chapter Four approaches the work of two contemporary writers—the Zimbabwean Tendai Huchu and the South African Imraan Coovadia—by way of ‘philosophical suicide’. This means a focus on the ‘relation between self-reflection and self-killing’ (147)—‘texts that “fail” to make the thinking subject speak for a shared condition but succeed in representing the recent challenges of sustaining a meaningful relation of part to whole’ (146-7). This chapter provides a number of challenging insights, particularly with respect to what might be missed by the current ‘transnational conjuncture of global-cosmopolitan novels and global-cosmopolitan criticism’ (153).

            The study’s ‘Epilogue’ is intended to highlight ‘some of the disciplinary challenges lurking behind the book as a whole, before offering some more speculative remarks on the future of both the field and the African novel of ideas’ (28). Throughout the book, Jackson raises essential questions for a field yet to appreciate fully the extent to which African literature contributes to and problematises disciplinary debates. Chapter Three, for instance, begins with a general discussion of African Literature’s ‘mapping’ of ‘debates over whether to expand or pluralize Enlightenment concepts’ (107). But the epilogue’s main thrust is over the question of ‘how to navigate literary nonrepresentality’, or ‘how to advance a literary field when an implicit or explicit claim to “speak for” a large population grows untenable’ (181). As such, Jackson’s interest in individualism and singularity comes full circle: the epilogue’s challenge to a literary criticism content to retain African Literature merely as a representative of marginality—African authors merely as representatives of a culture, continent, and ethnicity figured as homogenous and static—underlines the book’s disciplinary importance, its ability to recalibrate ways of reading, and mapping, literature in the twenty-first century.

            Overall, The African Novel of Ideas provides excellent navigation across an impressive and conceptually challenging range of material. Acknowledged absences, like Bessie Head, together with unacknowledged ones, such as Kojo Laing—whose career-long engagement with questions of universalism, though not quite in keeping with the specific emphases of Jackson’s book, might provide another direction for the kind of inquiry exemplified by The African Novel of Ideas—serve to encourage other critics and theorists to continue to build on the foundation of Jackson’s study. Future scholarship will, undoubtedly, take inspiration from this book, particularly with respect to its pursuit of a means of thinking about the ways in which ‘individuality, universality, rationality, sovereignty, civility and even philosophy itself are informed by the contexts of their emergence and elaboration outside the West’ (12).