- Interview by
- Meg Arenberg
In a sweeping new book that takes on “everything,” the writer and scholar of literature, cinema, and media studies Akin Adesokan offers a fresh take on “new” African creative forms in the digital age. Everything is Sampled asks how a longer view of African art-making across media and setting might affect our understanding of what counts as art, as text, and as authorship. In this long view, the publishing crisis under structural adjustment in the 1980s becomes just one manifestation of a larger set of structural challenges African artists have faced and which have played a critical, indeed constitutive, role in artistic practice on the continent to the present day. Along the way, Everything is Sampled offers a new framework for describing African cultural production over the past four decades, thoughtfully departing from well-worn categorizations of discipline, genre, authorship, and hierarchies of artistic value. Broken into two parts, the book distills five modes of creative practice that bring what might seem unlikely groupings of creative work by African artists—from novels to films, operas to blog posts—into a comparative frame.
In this interview, Adesokan offers a broad introduction to the book’s key contributions to the field, reflects on how the ideas in the book have intersected with his scholarly, pedagogical, and creative practices, and gives a window into some of the texts that most influenced him in its writing.
What motivated you to write Everything is Sampled? What was missing from previous treatments of African media arts and digital culture?
Thank you for the question. In the Fall of 2011, I designed and taught an upper undergraduate course titled “African Literature and Other Arts,” with the premise that African literature, or literary studies in general, could be better appreciated as a non-autonomous field, especially given its relationship to what is often spoken of as “oral literature.” We know that the pioneers of modern African literature, those who started publishing in the decades before formal independence, figures like Thomas Mofolo, Daniel Fagunwa, Birago Diop, drew upon folklore and endogenous forms of representation to advance their careers as modern men and women of letters. In addition, in the course, we observed that art forms like cinema, music, the visual arts, draw on the same modes, that they co-exist with literature, and that they also thrive autonomously. In the course of teaching that class, especially in subsequent semesters, I ran into issues of access: some titles were out of print, or published in places that were difficult to access. Many films were never formatted as videos, much less as DVDs, and in some cases I would need to know an artist personally before I could gain access or permission to include his or her work. These are non-artistic issues, they are about the economics and sociologies of publishing, of production, but they are some of the motivating conditions for writing the book. There were others, such as my curatorial and organizational work with the Chimurenga Chronic, the Fagunwa Study Group, and the New Media and Literary Initiatives in Africa, NeMLiA (in which you, Meg, played an important role at the beginning).
As for the second question, frankly, I’m not aware of any previous treatments of African media arts, and digital culture that also engage literature in the manner that Everything Is Sampled has done. I know of Shọla Adenẹkan’s book on African literature and digital culture, and I discuss it in my book. There are several articles by others, including yours on Swahili poetry. What I attempt in the book is to approach literature as one of the many art forms, and to go beyond reading for thematics, even within digitality.
What would you say are the book’s key interventions?
What the book does is to make the case that it is possible, perhaps even necessary, to think about anything—the arts, politics, economy—without presuming that they bear no relationships to one another, and without seeking to undermine their integrity as autonomous entities. In other words, those aspects of society that are often viewed in discrete terms due to disciplinary pressures or divisions of labor have a history, but that is no reason for overlooking the fact that they exist together in society, and the arts are a useful system for seeing that simultaneity of spheres of existence. As you know, I write and teach across genres and forms, and in each chapter of the book, I pair or cluster texts, authors, and modes to make the perception of simultaneity of spheres manifest. Also, although the book responds to technological changes, I made a decision to see a phenomenon such as digital technology as just another phase in a long history of those changes, and I look beyond the current state of things, to imagine what may happen after digitality has, like previous phases, run its course. To do this within the parameters of a book that requires a definite structure, I put media, the act of mediation, in dialogue with time (diachronicity) and space (translocality), and try to reason that under digitality, at least, our ideas about what constitutes art or text are open to debate. Finally, I didn’t advertise this in the book because I prefer assuming a position to claiming it: I opted to center African scholars and writers as my theoretical guides if you like. It makes sense, it’s the intelligent thing to do given the genesis of the materials, and I’m not out to impress anybody or be seen as an acolyte of one theorist or another. The one canonical, non-African writer that I discuss at some length is Walter Benjamin, and a friend (a former teacher, actually), made a joke about that—as if Benjamin must show up in anything I write!
This book seems to follow in some ways from your previous monograph, Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics, which starts from the key insight that genre is dependent on context, and that art emerges in the shuttling between cultural and economic spheres. Do you see the book as following from a similar set of concerns and questions?
Yes, you’re right about that. As I see it, given the “contexts of production” of Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics itself as a book, I had limitations in making that case about contingencies of production as robustly as I could have. It was my first book, largely based on my doctoral dissertation, and I was working with “a clock.” In this book, I think I went farther than before, in part because I had more time, I could wait and not rush things, even though one must stop at a point. Of course, I’m also the first to admit that one can always go further, and there’s no need to pretend that one book will answer all questions.
A central argument in your book is that political and ethical impulses have been integral to African art from its inception and that artists themselves are the primary agents of these impulses. I wonder if you have turned this thinking on your own writing practice—as a journalist and fiction writer as well as a scholar. Are there consistent political and ethical impulses behind your work? Has this project prompted you to evaluate your own “modes of creative practice?”
I have written before, I think it was in an article published in PMLA, that I read as a writer, not as a specialist in a period, genre, or region. I approach academic work in that spirit. I had a different life and set of work experiences before graduate school: writing for newspapers, writing fiction and poetry, editing an arts journal, and doing things that didn’t require working with a thesis or theory. I even worked briefly as a television producer. I haven’t given up on any of those things I used to do before becoming a professor and teacher, so nearly everything I write is informed in one way or another by the different kinds of skills I have developed or acquired. More than my first book, Everything Is Sampled has made clear to me that certain impulses have been integral to my creative thinking, and the simplest way to describe this is to emphasize the links between wholes and fragments. Think of the African continent as a whole of something, the physical landmass we see on a map. It has fragments—in the historical diasporas that mass enslavements generated across the Americas and Arabia, in various ethnicities, languages, religions, or cultures. Now, each of these, including the massive, continental space, is both a whole and a fragment. I have come to regard the creative process, or at least the creative act, in a similar manner. There’s a greater deal of self-consciousness, or less taken-for-grantedness if you like, in the way I think about writing a novel, a screenplay, or composing a poem.
Let’s say I’m envisioning a novel about Victorian Lagos, or roughly the period between 1872 and 1914, for the sake of narrative convenience. I’ll have character sketches of historical figures transposed into fictional characters, and I think I can get away with that. That act of transposition, however, requires a shuttle between bits of documented historical facts about those figures and my creative hunches about how humans behave or could behave. I may have heard or read a common phrase floating about. Let’s say “petty squabbles,” and I can then go ahead to construct an elaborate incident connecting that phrase to a character’s conduct, and tack to it a line from a contemporary song, by Tracy Chapman, for example. What I just described can apply to a work of fiction that is not about history. In writing, in creating original work, we do this all the time. Maybe we take it for granted? One thoughtful African writer, the Nigerian poet Odia Ofeimun, must have said something like “art comes out of thin air and old things.”
I love that line! Are there any particular interlocutors you had in mind as you were writing Everything is Sampled? Are there titles you would recommend pairing it with?
I’ll talk instead of works that were very important to the development of my ideas for the book. The principal work is Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Eloquence of the Scribes, a 2006 semi-autobiography by the Ghana-born writer about the sources and resources of African literature. I like that book very much and heartily recommend it because I think it’s one of the best-achieved books in modern African letters. Wọle Ṣoyinka has an essay titled “Theater in African Traditional Cultures: Survival Patterns,” which I think was an account of the research he conducted in African drama in the early 1960s; I drew extensively on his ideas. Historians of West Africa like Boubacar Barry and Walter Rodney also helped. The claim about the ethical impulse I took from a comprehensive essay about African literature by Eileen Julien. In terms of contemporary scholarly works, I can think of Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New (2006) and Louis-Chude Sokei’s The Sound of Culture (2015). Recent turns toward historiography and archive, such as Ọlabọde Ibironkẹ’s Remapping African Literature and Nathan Suhr-Sytsma’s Poetry, Print and the Making of Postcolonial Literature, are also potentially relevant, although for different reasons.
What do you want most for readers to take away from the book?
A friend who’s a respected African scholar asked me a similar question during a phone conversation. The most honest response I could give was that I hope that other scholars can read the book with genuine engagement and take things further. If I must pinpoint something that we usually take for granted, as readers or writers, it is that there is more to art than the artifact, the object, or the product. The creative act is very important and we can better appreciate the product by being mindful of that essence that may be invisible but is frankly indispensable to the final outcome. When the book first came out, I shared the promotional link with an older friend who’s not an academic and doesn’t normally circulate in our spheres. He’s an engineer; a man of few words but who’s extremely thoughtful and very, very sharp. He read the blurb and the title and wrote back “What a widely ramifying metaphor. Deeply meaningful to me as a technologist in two principal ways, yet its implications for humanistic and social sciences are tantalizing.” I didn’t expect that, but found it so canny, even though he hadn’t read the book. I think that Everything Is Sampled is the kind of book that may take a while to sink in. That’s ok; it took me a while to write it.