Reenchanting Teju Olaniyan

Among the many legacies of Teju Olaniyan’s teaching and writing would be a project to not only speak in the ideological name of Africa, but to redistribute the power of speaking in that name.

Tejumola Olaniyan. Image credit Adeleke Adeeko.

Tejumola Olaniyan passed away on November 30, 2019, at the age of 60. His writing on drama, literature, popular music, and political cartooning redefined the contours of African literary and cultural studies. Indeed, his work has done no less than reconstitute the study of culture in Africa—what it is, how it might be understood—in ways that have inspired countless other scholars and rechanneled the field’s flow of ideas.

Olaniyan (Teju or TJ to those who knew him) was Louise Durham Mean Professor of English and African Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as a recipient of one of the UW’s highest distinctions, a “named professorship” which he claimed in honor of his mentor and first scholarly inspiration, Wole Soyinka. Teju succumbed, very suddenly, to an asymptomatic heart condition that he and his immediate family had been aware of for 13 years. To the rest of us, however, it was a total shock. His passing has left an immeasurable hole not just in the fabric of African literary and cultural studies, but in yards of social fabric composed of readers and writers, students and teachers, friends and family, who span the Atlantic Ocean, and indeed the globe.

Teju came from a generation of Nigerian intellectuals who cut their teeth in the embattled field of postcolonial studies. He often remarked that, while he may have mastered the field’s discourse, he did so with a healthy dose of skepticism. That was no doubt part of his training, from his days in the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Nigeria, studying under Soyinka, to his time as a graduate student at Cornell University, working with scholars like Biodun Jeyifo. Teju’s work always bore the imprint of Soyinka’s iconoclasm and Jeyifo’s resolute Marxism. Equity, he told group of scholars who recently gathered in Madison to discuss decolonizing African Studies, must be the goal of postcolonial thinking and intellectual liberation. Asserting African identity, writing back, and recuperating philosophical traditions are meaningless projects unless undertaken in the name of material and cultural redistribution, of creating a world without barriers to both the means of producing and access to knowledge.

As Teju articulated it, the discursive field where postcolonial studies gives way to African cultural studies is defined by two “accents,” the “affirmative” and the “interstitial”—concepts he confidently adapted from Jeyifo’s work. Both are forms of discursively fighting imperialism, but the affirmative accent is inflected by claims to, or affirmations of, the very forms of difference and processes of differentiation on which domination is built. Meanwhile, the interstitial, Teju writes, “tries to relativize and deconstruct” binary ideas of race, gender, class, ability, and more, in order to create an “in-between, ‘interstitial’ space supposedly subversive against the great binary absolutes of the West and the non-West.” Pragmatic as always, Teju acknowledged that interstitial scholarship “reigns supreme” in Euro-American universities, while the affirmative accent still has great purchase in Africa. His unique and undoubtedly controversial take—being a resolute materialist—was to suggest that greater resources, often enjoyed by scholars based in Euro-America, create better scholarship. Yet only the incisive power of the affirmative accent, he showed, can help us understand that clearly, even as it ultimately ought to dissolve, were resources allocated equitably. Ideally, Teju suggested in another article, the only test capable of determining whether a discourse is truly spoken in the name of Africa is not geographical, or even racial, but ideological. Put simply, “Africa” is an ideological concept, one that emerged along with modernity, but which has also often been the best weapon wielded against it.

Teju’s first book, Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance (1995), argued that drama from across the African world—Nigerian, Caribbean, African-American—bore scars of modernity that also hardened into masks. In that book, which he wrote as an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, he first began elaborating a conception of subjectivity that he was able to bring into sharper focus with his next monograph, Arrest the Music! Fela and His Rebel Art and Politics (2004). There, Teju describes Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s nativism, or affirmative accent, in terms of a search for “authentic subjectivity.” The phrase is an oxymoron, he admits, but a useful one. If subjectivity refers to the interplay of agency and the structural conditions within which it is not only practiced, but without which it would be illegible, as well as the very structural conditions shaped over time by acts of agency, then subjectivity cannot be, by definition, authentic. Yes, we choose, but never under conditions we have chosen. (Teju had a way of effortlessly prompting you to bring Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire into a discussion without you quite realizing that you did.) “Authentic subjectivity” is, nevertheless, appropriate because it names a set of conditions, or power relations, that are not overdetermined, not dominated by outside forces. Fela’s quest was to be able to deal with Nigerian national domination, essentially, without having to simultaneously deal with imperial domination. That quest may have been quixotic, to be sure, but Teju was right to name and acknowledge the enduring importance of affirmative accents—not just their strategic usefulness, but their identity-defining and life-shaping quality. Writing about Fela was, therefore, the logical extension of Teju’s work on black dramatists, whom he wrote in Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance were “questing for cultural identity not because they are black but because they are black and dominated.”

Biodun Jeyifo and Tejumola Olaniyan.

Another key concept from Teju’s book on Fela is the idea of the “postcolonial incredible,” a phrase he originally developed in his work on the Nigerian playwright Femi Osofisan. Here, “incredible” refers to that which cannot be believed, a state of things that not only makes no sense, but cannot invite the imaginative thinking necessary to make things make sense. By the time Fela had become famous, postcolonial politics had become so incredible, so bereft of the ideological substrate necessary to elicit belief, let alone consent, that affirmation and authentic subjectivity were the most logical responses. Therefore again, Teju was able to acknowledge the superiority of a potentially interstitial understanding of power, while simultaneously recognizing, and even endorsing, the kind of affirmative accent that accompanies conditions of relative disempowerment. It is no wonder that he was beloved at home in Nigeria, where his passing has been widely mourned, as well as the North American academy where he found an intellectual home and many, many places to intervene.

There is not enough space here to review all of Teju’s great works, nor will I attempt to recount the details of his professional biography. There are many other writers better placed than I to recall his days as an emerging scholar. I studied under, and then worked alongside Teju for nearly fifteen years. I teach in the Department of African Cultural Studies that is, in many ways, made in his image. The above concepts are some of the many he fashioned as he shaped the department and the field. And all of them would no doubt have factored into his unfinished magnum opus, a “cultural biography of the postcolonial state in Africa,” as he was known to describe it. Some of the preliminary work for that project became other projects, such as his many articles and eventually an edited collection on political cartoons. I helped him build an online encyclopedia of African political cartoons. I also worked with Teju on a conference focused on the state and culture in postcolonial Africa that he called “Enchantings.” That word constitutes one of Teju’s most enduring, and in a way, heartbreaking concepts.

In several publications, including an edited volume derived from the conference, Teju would elaborate his conception of enchanting by writing something to the effect of “I have elsewhere characterized…” That “elsewhere,” if you take a look at the footnotes, is the book he never published. Indeed, Teju’s great project, which is elaborated well in the work he did publish, but is yet to be fully articulated, was an account of modernity as disenchantment and reenchantment. Drawing on Max Weber, but forging a conceptual paradigm all his own, and uniquely capable of expressing the aporias of contemporary Africa, Teju labored to show that modernity is a form of disenchantment in Africa, oppression that must be fought, while it is equally a reenchantment, a container holding the promise of overcoming oppression. If he is right about accents, that the interstitial is better at dealing with, and surpassing the modern world, if it is postmodern in the best sense of what that term might mean, he is also right that without access to the means of thinking interstitially, the whole venture is very disenchanting. Among the many legacies of Teju’s teaching and writing, therefore, would be a project to not only speak in the ideological name of Africa, but to redistribute the power of speaking in that name. More institutions, more jobs, more books, more voices, more access to the means of producing knowledge about Africa, by whatever means necessary, would honor Teju best.

Further Reading