Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing and In the Name of the Mother: Reflections on Writers and Empire by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing. 2012. New York: Columbia University Press. 120 pages. $24.00; hardback

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. 2013. In the Name of the Mother: Reflections on Writers and Empire. Rochester, NY: James Currey. 158 pages. $24.95; paper

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a central figure in the canon of postcolonial studies. He began his career as a writer in the 1960s and, through his criticism, became a leading advocate for a critical rethinking of the legacies of colonial domination and its accompanying epistemologies. Beginning in the early 1980s, as part of his advocacy for African languages and literatures, he began writing in Gikuyu—a position and process outlined in the canonical collection, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986).[1] Ngugi’s two most recent publications, Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012) and In the Name of the Mother: Reflections on Writers and Empire (2013), offer an opportunity to reflect on the last three decades of Ngugi’s career, spent largely in exile (first in Britain and then the United States) as well as a way to consider Ngugi’s role in contemporary conversations on world literature and anti- or decolonial thought.

Of the two essay collections, In the Name of the Mother most directly connects to Ngugi’s earlier work, given that the majority of the essays originated as notes for courses delivered at the University of Nairobi before 1977.[2] This includes pieces on writers such as George Lamming, Alex La Guma, and Sembène Ousmane. The title is drawn from the first of two essays on Lamming, in which Ngugi discusses the significance of the colonial “mother country” (an image constructed by the British) for writers of the post-independence period. It was in the name of that “mother” that the postcolonial ruling elite made contracts with the former colonizer that later became the hallmarks of neocolonialism in the post-independence period. The work of decolonization—which Ngugi terms a process, that must remove the metaphysical as well as the physical empire—requires not the destruction of the “mother” but rather the deconstruction of the “mother image.” Ngugi identifies this as the critical core of Lamming’s revolutionary aesthetics. It is also, not coincidentally, an apt description for Ngugi’s own work.

For readers familiar with Ngugi’s corpus, the essays of In the Name of the Mother at times show their age. This is especially the case in the choice of the material discussed: none of the essays touch on the cultural production of the twenty-first century. In the piece on African cinema, for example, the most recent film discussed is from 1993 and Ngugi makes only brief reference to the rise of Nollywood and video production, leaving out the proliferation of digital technologies that are reshaping cinema around the globe. Yet, what separates In the Name of the Mother from Ngugi’s earlier collections is, precisely, the traces of additions and revisions made in the years since the pieces were first conceived. In this, the collection becomes a geological cross-section of Ngugi’s criticism, this is valuable (even fascinating) to students of his work, and yet also suggests a series of missed opportunities to more directly connect authors such as Lamming to our contemporary moment.

If In the Name of the Mother gestures to Ngugi’s past, Globalectics finds Ngugi positioning himself in the critical present. Here, the ideas first put forward in Decolonizing the Mind are enriched in essays that explore the colonial relation and its epistemologies, colonial education, and the postcolonial as a model for the study of world literature in the present; the final essay looks beyond textuality to both orature (the oral tradition) and what Ngugi terms “cyborality.” The collection is drawn from work Ngugi presented in the Wellek Library Lectures in Critical Theory (May 2010) and centers on the critical concept of “globalectics.”

Proposed as a diversifying corrective to dialectics, globalectics: “embraces wholeness, interconnectedness, equality of potentiality of parts, tension, and motion” (8). The spatial metaphor of the globe—in which, Ngugi writes, all points are equidistant from the center—allows him to gesture beyond a specific geographical or historical context. The globe here stands for a radical reorganization of epistemological frameworks, and this makes possible the location of so-called ephemeral forms of knowing (including orature and performance) at the center of world literature and culture. While the language used to define globalectics at times approaches the mystical, at its core there is a call for a critical self-consciousness. As Ngugi writes a little later, globalectics calls for letting the act of reading become a process of (critical) self-examination (61). It is, ultimately, a reading practice for which the essays in this collection function as a performative example.

A key connecting thread that runs through the essays in Globalectics is the story of the proposal, made by Ngugi and fellow faculty members in 1968, that the English Department at the University of Nairobi be replaced with a Department of Literature.[3] This story, a key event in Ngugi’s personal and intellectual biography, encapsulates not just Ngugi’s vision for what we might call world literature “from below”—that is, a program for global reading articulated outside of the European-centered origins of “World Literature”—but also the principle of what he calls “poor theory.” As he explains in the Introduction, following the lines of E.P. Thompson’s critique of Louis Althusser (The Poverty of Theory, 1978) as well as Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre (1968), “poor theory” is a critical practice free of ornament and open to improvisation and making-do. But it remains unclear how exactly we might distinguish austerity or simplicity in ornamentation from elisions or oversights.

For example: although both the term “globalectics” (which contains the term “dialectics”) and repeated references to the dialectic of “master” and “slave” (or, bondsman) refer to Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel is invoked only as a starting point: neither the master-slave dialectic, as articulated in the Phenomenology, nor the principle of dialectical analysis as such are the subject of sustained philosophical critique. It is abundantly clear that such theoretical acrobatics are not Ngugi’s goal. But there are also instances in which explicit engagement with certain critics and critical discourses might have enriched the argument. I am thinking specifically of the absence of discussion of Jacques Rancière’s work on the politics of knowing and the organization of cultural or aesthetic space, two ideas that are similarly central to Ngugi.

Ultimately, the most valuable contribution of Globalectics is the principle of “globalectical reading” itself, as it pushes decolonial thinking beyond the postcolonial and into the realm of global cultural production. In this sense, Ngugi’s globalectics mirrors the transnational cultural gestures that characterized the narrative in his most recent novel, Wizard of the Crow (Murogi wa Kagogo, 2004-2007; 2006). It remains to be seen where Ngugi and others will take globalectics. One possible starting point may be its utility for discussing oral traditions and other more ephemeral modes of cultural production, as signaled in the final chapter of Globalectics as well as in the chapter on the work of the Angolan writer José Luandino Vieira in In the Name of the Mother. Globalectics may find its practitioners in contemporary conversations on world literature, but I would suggest that it might be equally—if not perhaps more—valuable to scholars working on national or regional traditions as a tool for thinking differently about the inside and outside of those corpuses.

Magalí Armillas-Tiseyra is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Mississippi; she is working on a book about the dictator-novel in Latin American and African literatures. Her writing has appeared in the Latin American Literary Review, Comparative Studies of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and is forthcoming in the collection Oppositional Arts: Unmasking the African Dictator. She is also the guest editor for a forthcoming issue of the journal The Global South.


  [1] As Ngugi writes in the Preface: “This book, Decolonizing the Mind, is my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings. From now on it is Gikuyu and Kiswahili all the way. However, I hope that through the age old medium of translation I shall be able to continue dialogue with all” (xiv). While Ngugi’s literary production since 1980 has been in Gikuyu, much of his critical work has been written in English.

  [2] From December 1977 to December 1978, Ngugi was held—without charge or trial—at the Kamiiti Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi. Prior to his arrest, Ngugi had published novels critical of the Kenyan government (Petals of Blood, 1977), advocated for the creation of a Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi (where he was on the faculty), and collaborated on the creation of Gikuyu-language theatre. This detention proved a turning point. After his release, Ngugi published his first Gikuyu-language novel, Caitaani Mutharabaini (Devil on the Cross, 1980)—begun in prison—as well as the memoir, Detained (1981). In the years that followed, he became a leading advocate for writing in African languages. This critical stance was cemented in a series of essay collections, including Decolonizing the Mind.

  [3] This position was laid out in the document, “On the Abolition of the English Department” (1968), co-authored by Ngugi, Owuor Anyumba and Taban lo Liyong. In Globalectics, Ngugi summarizes the proposed reform as follows: “Our Nairobi document called for a reordering of the process of knowing and specifically for placing the new synthesis of African, Caribbean, African-American literature and the kindred literatures of Asia and Latin America at a center of a new order of knowing, and then European Literature being brought in at the edges, however centered in its own places. In short, it called for centering the postcolonial in the world of knowing” (43). The original piece appears in the appendix to the Ngugi’s Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature (1972/1983).