Annual International Lecture 2017: “Conscripts of Colonial Modernity in Chinua Achebe's Rural Novels” (Ato Quayson)

Lecture with Ato Quayson, University Professor at the University of Toronto and Visiting Professor of African and Postcolonial Literature at NYU.

Colonial modernity shared with European modernity a number of features, including the privileging of reason as the primary site of judgment, technology in the form of roads, highways, and railways as the motor of development, and democracy as the political decision-making in the public sphere.  Subsidiary and concomitant notions that were tied to these three beliefs were that the special role of the nuclear (read Christian family) and that accumulation was to be a function of personal effort and the profit motive rather than of inheritance. In almost every instance of the expression of these beliefs, colonialism was to distort the values of European modernity (not that they were pure in Europe either in the first place). For my argument, however, what I am really interested in is the degree to which colonial modernity produced conditions for the ambiguation of attitudes to the past, whether collective or individual.  This and the subliminal curiosity about the opportunities for advancement that colonialism brought are what produced colonial subjects as conscripts of modernity.  I shall illustrate my argument in relation to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God with respect to two primary vectors, namely, the re-signification of the social morphology of space and in the dimension of conflicted interiority that was split between tradition on the one hand, and modern devices of self-definition on the other.