Modernity vs tradition trap – help!

Hi girls (and boys, if any is reading this)

I have some concerns about my work that I would love to share with you and listen (read, better) any comments/suggestions you may have.

As you know, I am currently studying books and pamphlets published in Lagos between 1880 and 1921. This period of Lagosian history is known as Cultural Nationalism, and its production is often described as a nationalist response to the colonization and the ideological framework (racism etc) that was part of the process. So, according to some academics (and I will not quote them here) Europeans were saying that Black people, Africans or Yorubas were not as sophisticated as them, and this black intelligentsia decided to show, in writing, that this was not true. (I know I am simplifying it, but this is supposed to be an easy post to read AND write). Some others go forward and say that more than nationalism, these intellectuals were living a struggle between modernity (European) and traditional (Yoruba) and their writing is a way of conciliating both worlds (I have argued that in my masters!).

I will (try) to argue that there is much more than that in these publications. The nationalist facet is exactly that, a facet of a much more plural and interesting production. The focus on the nationalism, I argue, came from the 60’s, when academics of the recently independent Nigeria want to show that colonization was just a night in African history. And the struggle between modernity and tradition – that I am not saying it never happened – can also be a projection of our own dichotomised way of understanding African history (Cooper’s style).

I looked for inspiration in grand…, I mean, Barber’s work:

“Even the earliest Yoruba writers of history cannot be seen simply as scribers, “writing down” authentic oral traditions. On the contrary, they did research. […] They consciously and explicitly interpreted their findings, proposing readings of the past and its relation to the present that were forged in new circumstances and required new genres to articulate them. […] Rather than thinking of the work produced by these writers as something halfway between authentic oral traditions and modern, professional, academic historiography, it may be more useful to see it as contributing to the creation of a distinctive early West African civic society that had print culture at its core.”(Barber, 2009 – my highlights)


to show this ‘plural and interesting’ production I have collected I don’t know how many publications (374 was the last count, still have a few to add to the list) and now I am reading them (I tried to get away without reading them all, but Steph didn’t let me, of course).

I am having loads of fun! They are beautiful and funny (sarcastic). Sometimes they can get a bit specific on details about some wars or line of succession of kings, but I don’t mind. And yes, I can see the nationalism jumping out of some pages. But I can see many other things too. They go from criticisms to the ‘traditional doctors’ to ‘we have to acknowledge that herbs are actually good for this disease’ kind of thought on the same chapter. It is clear now how easily one could just say: “yeap, modernity vs traditional struggle right there!” But I think there is more, and I have not figured out (yet) how to talk about this ‘more’.

I have been identifying some topics that were quite common and in some occasions started debates that jumped from books to the newspapers, and back to pamphlets etc. Polygamy, for instance is a nice one. Is monogamy a Christian dogma or a European cultural trait? Some thought it was part of Christianism, therefore every Christian should be monogamist. Others argued that it was part of an European life style, thus Christian Yorubas could be polygamists. And the way this debate was weaved (stealing the expression from Barber) is really interesting! But I am still stuck in how to write about this without falling on all the traps I mentioned before.

Have you got this far on the post!? Thanks, girls! I don’t expect you to answer me with a solution. Writing about it here was already a big help. I think I need to read more about print culture, so if you have any suggestions they are really welcome =)


PS: just in case, I was kidding, I always planned to read them all…someday…

Categories: Academic Research, History and Memory

Tags: , , ,

4 replies

  1. WordPress just suggested me to add these tags to my post: vacation, travel, cars, transportation, videogames, gaming.


    I think I need a break! Even the computer can see that!



  2. Wow – you are reading all 370+ pamphlets! That must be both a challenging yet rewarding experience! I really think by putting in the time to do this you will naturally develop amazing insights and expertise into how this ‘distinctive’ print culture of early West African civic society that Barber highlights might be characterized. It is clear that the kind of work your doing does already show there is something more complex and interesting going on here, that can’t be reduced to the existing work / debates on cultural nationalism or modernity vs. tradition. And that in itself is exciting! How you write about this of course remains the challenging question, and I’m glad you are not expecting a solution!

    The only thought I had – which as you might expect is connected to my own research – is whether there might be interesting things to say not about the topics and themes you are finding being debated, but the way in which they are being debated. As you know while my research looks at the ways writers and readers engage with the cultural memory of particular events, I’m less interested in the content of those memories and more interested in the way in which they are memorialized. In addition, I’m particularly interested in the idea that the plural or dialogic memory making process James Young talks about in relation to Holocaust memorials, might have a particular resonance for contemporary African writing. So Young argues that ‘the surest engagement with memory lies in its perpetual irresolution’ and that it is in the questioning of ‘what kind of memory to preserve, how to do it, in whose name, and to what end’ that memory itself is located. I guess my question back to you with this in mind is whether there you can see in the way debates are moving between pamphlets and newspapers a print culture which sees dialogue as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end? And of course the best reading on this idea of a discursive West African print culture is of course Steph herself!

  3. Nara – this has stayed with me – this dilemma, if you can categorise it as that and please excuse the radical simplification – this available choice between two terms – tradition or modernity – and I think it has bounced around in my head particularly because it has resonances with kinds of African lit. debates about ‘myth’, or ‘animism’ in relation to African literature in English, or what Arlene Elder refers to as ‘oraliterature’ (in relation to Okri’s abiku trilogy) – ‘mytho-poetic narratives that look like novels’ (?!), and the implicit sense that there is a specifically African literary sensibility – to be celebrated, respected – but that still, even now that criticism has emerged through the language, nationalist and Pan-Africanist, and other debates – its definition, what makes it ‘it’, is very difficult to grasp in a both/and way – somehow it evades that and slips into the ‘or’. That’s what I find troubling about Elder’s phrase, for example; Okri’s writing is not novelistic – it is something else that just looks like it’s novelistic – this is, surely, the implication (even in context, it can’t avoid this implication). Okri doesn’t write novels… hum.
    What I’m finding so absorbing in the work you are doing, in light of the kinds of debates I have briefly sketched from my own standpoint above, is how the connections to ‘modernity’ – the kinds of clusters of meanings that attach themselves to and fill out the concept of modernity – and similarly, to ‘tradition’, have come to be associated with the terms. I love the debates you describe about polygamy, for example (are the Mormons in there? – and wonder what might have happened had there been the possibility of polyandry open to debate!); and, particularly, how the medicine issue just does away with the terms altogether, to my mind – that’s just not what is important about it (I may be misreading that) – what is important is its use, its positive effects.
    The other thing that your work clearly illustrates to me is this turning on its head the idea that it is always the cluster of meanings that come to be ‘modern’ that intervene and shift, and therefore are the active agent of change (active, present tense stuff, ‘nowness’ even), in the cluster of meanings that come to be ‘traditional’ (by implication ‘changed’, passive, gone, lost?). It cuts through a framework which recognises meaning production in African cultural making only through a lens of Western progress and modernity. Someone who speaks very interestingly about these kinds of perspective shifts, specifically between tradition and modernity, viewing cultural production in relation to its own authority rather than to an external one is Aedin NiLoingsigh, in relation to travel literature in *Postcolonial Eyes: Intercontinental Travel in Francophone African Literature*. There’s a sense in which, I think, there are connections to be made between Kate’s point about dialogue between being an end in itself and Loingsigh’s points about travel in a period that I think is consonant with yours, as defining itself actively according to the travellers’ perspectives and not those of an imposed modernity. There is also the slippage into the imposition of an encoded (and damaging, often brutalising) binary perspective, such as those in the points that Victoria was raising with Conrad and Kingsolver, that this intellectual shift shows up, highlights for scrutiny, in all kinds of contexts – explicit or otherwise. Very exciting.
    I have the Loingsigh if you want to have a look at it at any point. The introduction is great – can easily get that to you in a digestible form, too.
    Would like to keep up to date with how it’s going too, and any other crossovers with other’s work.

  4. hey, lovely ladies, thank you so much for your comments! You are soo good! (I better finish my thesis soon, before you raise the standards with your own work.)
    This is my week, my turn to post, so I am ‘weaving’ an answer for you right now…

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