The Reproach from Mount Olympus: Pat Utomi, Moses Ochonu, and the Burden of Reason

No Comments » May 29th, 2008 posted by // Categories: General Articles



By Pius Adesanmi

 

I am worried about Professor Pat Utomi. Anyone who, like me, has been in awe of the unimpeachable progressive bona fides of this engagé public intellectual in the last three decades should be worried. When your reputation and persona rest on decades of sustained and meritorious contributions to the advancement of public discourse and intellection in Africa, it can be taken for granted that you have paid your dues and have earned the latitude not only to choose your battles but, most importantly, to determine the modalities for engaging your interlocutors, once you reach the conclusion that it is worth your while to engage them in public disquisition. The ethos of the public sphere, however, forbids you from ignoring the fundamental difference between talking to and talking at your interlocutors.

 

Professor Utomi’s recent sortie in The Nigerian Village Square, “Nigeria’s Public Space and Reason Embattled” represents the most egregious instance of talking at interlocutors that I have encountered in recent times. A colleague who saw it first in the Village Square drew my attention to it. We discussed it over the phone and I observed that the prose appeared a tad hurried and not devoid of syntaxic infelicities, quite unlike the characteristically beautiful Utomi prose we’d learned to recognize and admire over the years. I speculated that it was probably written by a Personal Assistant who did not care to get it vetted. A few days later, the piece appeared in the Guardian and effectively put paid to our rationalizations.

 

Professor Utomi talks at two sets of interlocutors he finds quite irritating: diasporic internet warriors who, in his estimation, spew hot air from the comforts of American suburbia on the one hand, and the throng of intellectually impecunious local pundits – he calls them beer parlour pundits – who surround him in Nigeria on the other hand. He is obviously at pains to determine if these two sets of interlocutors are nitwits, halfwits or a combination of nitwits and halfwits. What is certain, for him, is that these minimally intelligent hordes have invaded the space of elevated public discourse, crowding out – or driving out – the anointed repositories of knowledge and turning the Nigerian public sphere into a desolate arena of low quality exchanges.

 

This self-fashioning as post-Enlightenment Reason, as the very embodiment of Descartes’s legendary “I” who deigns to reproach unruly critics from his perch on the roof of Mount Olympus, is interesting for several reasons. First, it creates and enables the hubristic standpoint from which local beer parlour pundits can be metaphorically disempowered. Once this happens, Reason is on its way to alienation. Alienation – the eternal damnation of the public intellectual! As disparate as the writings of Julien Benda, Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said, and Frantz Fanon are on the role of the intellectual in society, they all recognize the dangers of alienation.

 

There is no greater evidence of alienation than the casual dismissal of subaltern knowledges as evidenced by the haughty reference to beer parlour punditry in Professor Utomi’s article. Of all the seismic shifts that have remapped the production of knowledge and its modes of interaction with the social since the dogs of poststructuralism were unleashed in the 1960s, the scramble for and the valuation of hitherto hidden or repressed subaltern knowledges stands out. Academia and other sites of knowledge production have gone in search of all kinds of minority voices and knowledges lurking in hitherto ignored social spheres. Every year, thousands of academic researchers and graduate students in Euro-America fan across the global south (Africa, Latin America), armed with research grants, seeking to immerse themselves in the lore and knowledges of the beer parlor, the Mama Put buka, and such other places. These are the new sites of knowledge that the academy validates with such discursive formations as postcolonial studies, cultural studies, and, of course, popular culture. Actors within these spheres appear in academic jargon as subjects and agents.

 

What the new modes of knowledge production and instrumentalization in academia impose on us is the responsibility to unlearn our privileges. For me, this implies a renewed respect for subaltern knowledges that takes me frequently to the beer parlour during regular summer stints in Nigeria. My beer parlour stints are, of course, aided by detours to palm wine joints, Mama Put bukas, paraga joints, and Free Readers Association parliaments at newspaper vendors’ stalls. What could possibly be superior to the knowledges hidden in narrativizations of Nigeria by commuters on a Molue bus in Lagos? I do not joke with my Molue bus rides! If my holiday takes me up north to Kaduna and Zaria, I pay homage regularly to the ancestors at burukutu joints. Sapele water also frequently beckons. Who are the pundits you usually find and interact with in these places? How do they imagine the nation, the state, leadership? How do their ‘ways of seeing’ (apologies to John Berger) inflect culture and national identity? These are the questions that the Academy now privileges to the point of fetishization. Add to this the immense richness of the Englishes and varieties of Pidgin used to ‘discourse’ the nation by total strangers meeting casually in these subaltern spheres of sociality! The ‘Nigeria’ I garner annually from these spaces always works its way into my cultural studies graduate seminars in North America as I try to teach students not to limit Africa to the deodorized perspectives of her political leaders and intellectuals. Africa is people, as Chinua Achebe would put it.

 

In essence, the discursive imagi-Nation of Nigeria among beer parlour pundits in the aforementioned subaltern spaces is not in anyway inferior to the parallel imagi-Nations produced in cocooned, elitist, and alienated spheres such as the Lagos Business School, the University of Lagos, or the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. It is not for nothing that Wole Soyinka recently confessed to having acquired the knowledge and dynamics of international currency speculation from a Nigerian market woman operating in Accra, Ghana! In essence, narrativizations of the nation from above have yielded to such conceptual frameworks as ‘knowledge from below’. In this discursive atmosphere, the engagé intellectual who ignores or scoffs at the little voices of history – even metaphorically – runs the risk of missing out entirely on the nuance and complexities of discourse in the spheres of popular culture. This condition marks the beginning of the drift to la-la land, where “nuanced engagement” of complex national issues is perspectivized as the private estate of the intellectual wing of the bourgeoisie.

 

Once the solipsism that authorizes the hubristic dismissal of interlocutors as irritants who are incapable of “nuanced engagement” and who consequently confer “a character of the simplistic” on the national space of discourse has been established, it becomes procedurally convenient to forge ahead with aggressive rhetorical strategies that can only intimidate transient players in the field of discourse. In this process, unnamed interlocutors are lumped into one gigantic basket of irrelevance while brilliant nuggets, which contain unassailable material for rich and nuanced debate, are cleverly occluded or only referenced in a manner so vague as to render them unrecognizable.

 

Moses Ochonu’s brilliant piece, “Pat Utomi’s Unraveling”, is a good case in point. For the trained eye in the business of intertextual reading, it is quite easy to detect the veiled references to Ochonu’s piece in Professor Utomi’s riposte. As far as I know – and I followed the back and forth keenly on the internet – Ochonu’s article is the most intellectually robust engagement of Professor Utomi that emanated from “the comfort of American suburbia”. One may disagree with every point Ochonu makes but it would require extreme chutzpah to discountenance the exceptional brio of his submissions and the seductive word-smithery with which he conveys them. I should know. Prose is my profession.

 

In essence, Ochonu’s article offered Professor Utomi a breath of fresh air that he tragically dismissed. If our discourse-space is now hostage to simplisms of all hues as Professor Utomi claims, why not seize the one opportunity to enrich it by engaging the pertinent points Ochonu raises? When did a sophisticated exposé – delivered as a cross between scholarly writing and public commentary – on the spectre and dangers of elite solidarity become a topic fit only for scornful dismissal on account of its provenance from the so-called comfort of American suburbia? Against the background of irritating mythologies about the jolly conditions of Nigerians in Euro-American diaspora, a ground often mischievously deployed to delegitimize their contributions to national discourse by some bad belle home-based commentators who unimaginatively equate location at home with patriotism, it is particularly frustrating to see a transnational Nigerian intellectual of Professor Utomi’s standing cleverly avoid what could have been an illuminating debate with Ochonu on those scurrilous grounds.

 

We must grant Professor Utomi the benefit of the doubt that journalists either decontextualized his comments or misquoted him outright. Fine. It still doesn’t explain the curious timing of Professor Utomi’s sortie. President Yar’Adua and his sidekick, Michael Aondoakaa, have transformed their simulacra of anti-corruption probes into the only functioning industry since the inception of their illegitimate government. There had therefore been ample time to critique what Professor Utomi sees as counterproductive, backward-looking national flânerie. It didn’t have to come just when Professor Charles Soludo, his friend and co-traveler, happened to be in the eye of the storm. Perception, they say, is everything. Ochonu cannot be faulted here for smelling the rat of elite solidarity. But Ochonu is too savvy an intellectual to limit his analysis to elite solidarity, hence this caution:

 

 

It bears repeating: it is wrong to dismiss the current wave of anti-corruption probes as backward-looking spectacle. What Professor Utomi has done is to ignore the Aesculapian power of catharsis, any form of national catharsis. Admittedly, no one is naïve enough to take President Yar’Adua and his Attorney General – two beneficiaries of Nigeria’s worst instance of corruption – seriously as anti-corruption jihadists; no one is naïve enough to take the National Assembly – where petty criminals are hailed as “VIP comrades” – seriously as the location of genuine probes that could eventuate in real consequences for the traducers of our national destiny. However, there is something inherently healing – no matter how fleetingly – in seeing thieves like James Ibori, Lucky Igbinedion, Iyabo Obasanjo, and Orji Uzor Kalu undergo five minutes of discomfort in the dock, never mind the justifiable public perception that the outcome of their respective trials has been predetermined by our rule of law Attorney General. There is something cathartic about the exposure of General Obasanjo’s hypocrisy. What exactly is backward looking in the exposures? How is letting the Nigerian people know that Obasanjo spent $16 billion buying darkness counterproductive? What is bad in knowing that Professor Charles Soludo may have indulged in careless and unconstitutional transactions with the people’s money?

 

Elite exceptionalism, the mythologization of the progressive intellectual, the fetishization of performance and competence, and the canonization of showy intellectualism are all legitimate issues thrown up by the Utomi-Soludo situation, no matter how we cut, slice or spin issues. They are the pitfalls of intellectual labour in a context like Nigeria where pervasive corruption imposes perpetual vigilance, intra-class scrutiny, and sustained self-reflexivity on the progressive intellectual class. Ochonu deserves considerable credit for having the courage to identify and problematize them in a manner that is not in the least suggestive of finality. Each of these themes deserves comprehensive unpacking to determine not only how they shape individual and class trajectories in our public sphere. Moses Ochonu has set the ball rolling. Hopefully, Professor Utomi will find time to address them. It is bad strategy for someone who has been described – and with good reason – as Nigeria’s answer to Barack Obama to be seen to be talking at the only constituency that holds on tenaciously to the dream of an Utomi presidency in Nigeria. If and when that day comes, and Professor Utomi moves into Aso Rock as an expression of the people’s electoral will, he certainly wouldn’t have to start the urgent task of taking justice to past and present treasury looters from the scratch. The antics of the current administration, no matter how hypocritical, have unwittingly thrown out plenty of information. That could be the starting point for a President Utomi. Come the day!

 

PS

If I ever get to meet Professor Utomi, I will insist he buys me a drink at any beer parlour of his choice in Apongbon, Iyana Ipaja, or Okokomaiko.

 

 

 

 

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