Reading Shola Adenekan’s African Literature in the Digital Age

 

Shola Adenekan’s African Literature in the Digital Age characterizes itself as “the first book-length study on the relationship between African literature and new media.” For a fascinating and inventive volume, this description is both apt and reticent, even if a reminder of the tad neglect of an area of African literary studies that still appears to have a tentative and uncertain reputation among scholars of African literatures. This is, however, not a denial of the evident strides made in literary digital humanities in Africa in the last several years. For instance, there has been a growing body of publications exploring these topics  in the last 5 years, including a recent special issue at Postcolonial Text co-edited by Shola Adenekan himself, together with some of the other prominent scholars in the field—Rhonda Cobham-Sander, Stephanie Bosch Santana, and Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang. A survey of some of the most important volumes of African literary and cultural productions, however, seems to suggest we still encounter the role of digital media hardware and software in African writing as peripheral scholarship to the “serious” work critics are doing in other areas. I can immediately point to three excellent publications that precede Adenekan’s book, all of which either entirely omit or offer a paltry space for a robust engagement with African literary DH

For instance, the outstanding 2021 volume, A Companion to African Literatures edited by the literary scholar Olakunle George, offers a single chapter which, despite its writer’s characteristically brilliant analyses, appears to be, quite frankly, an afterthought that is supposed to reconstellate the literary forms and meanings in more supposedly ‘serious’ and stable forms like print. Although this gesture is consistent in several other instances, it makes a publication such as Adenekan’s a timely and refreshing work that calibrates and potentially refigures the theoretical canons of African literary criticism.

While studies in the intersections of “new media technologies” and African literary and cultural productions are not uncommon, this lack of sustained engagement with the specific ways computer technology influences and transforms literature is also glaring. In its nuanced attention to the form and aesthetics of the digital, therefore, Adenekan’s book takes seriously the discursive implications of the affordances of digital media for both established African writers and a new generation of young writers using the participatory web and blogging to circulate literary forms. This important book recognizes the ways in which the digital age enables new writerly possibilities and an era of openness, while making legible the agency of new literary voices and sensibilities.

One accomplishment of the book is the analytical space it constructs for the enunciation of the digital articulation of literary works that invite us to rethink the ways in which a new regime of digital visibility enables novel understandings of quotidian political and cultural processes. For instance, the inaugurating chapter on network thinking, draws on Adenekan’s previous scholarly background in computing and builds on the work of Manuel Castells and Patrick Jagoda to signal the many layers of relationship and literary networks between the analogue terrain of print publication and that of the digital. Although the philosophical notion of the “rhizome,” developed by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, could have greatly enriched Adenekan’s explications of the assemblage of literary connections and authorial multiplicities in African digital spaces, the author makes up for this by invoking metaphors of oral poetics which center on the Anansi trickster spider. Symbolizing the way in which oral networks operated long before print technology, Anansi’s web in Adenekan’s theorizing signifies how networks come into being “through information architecture as well as through the metaphors provided in oral productions and creative writings” (22). In this integration of orality, Adenekan’s volume promotes an understanding of digital media through its connections to the aesthetic strategies of ‘old’ media.

By foregrounding analysis of digital literary networks and their importance to our understanding of literary history in Nigeria and Kenya, African Literature in the Digital Age addresses an important aspect of African literature, astutely explicating the online literary networks that enable an appreciation of global politics, class and literature. Adenekan demonstrates how the digital both reiterates the metaphors of print and connects to oral tradition through the fluidity of textual forms and the dialogic participation of readers in their production and transmission. As rich and middle-class queer Kenyans and Nigerians create communities and find new portals for their work online, they not only transcend the conservative politics of traditional publishing, but also inspire the author’s argument that African digital spaces are marked by class consciousness and sexual politics. Therefore, we encounter imbricating links between discourses of class, sexuality and the body politic in digital texts that center on queerness, and erotic pleasures, born-digital literary forms that challenge the dominance of hetero-normative analyses in African literature. Hence, the volume’s significant dilation on queer politics means we can read it as an important intervention in queer digital studies.

In his closing chapter on social media, the digital emerges as a quotidian zone for the performance of class identities among the literary publics he analyzes. For writers in particular, everyday online experiences are as real and tangible as the dailiness of non-digital spaces. As the author astutely argues, social media for writers such as Chimamanda Adichie and the late Binyavanga Wainana functioned as the location for the free play of literary circulations, personal status updates, and stories conveyed to thousands of followers who may or may not be fans and ‘friends.’ In Adenekan’s brilliant explanation, literary fandoms and friendships as generative sites of artistic practices online often mean that African writers and their publics online socialize both through the written word and through emoticons, emojis, GIFs, and images. Although the book contends that, like linguistic texts, these visual forms of “digital communication all possess aesthetic value” (145), it probably misses a chance here to show the overlapping relations between the ontological visuality of social media and the performative assertion of literary agency among writers. In other words, if African literature online is a class affair among African digital subjects as Adenekan suggests, how are other cultural producers outside of that elite space using selfies, GIFS and other images to equally perform the quotidian? While this question may not be of immediate concerns to the author, it very likely reveals how a disposition for the performative on social media cannot be divorced from both the expression of quotidian aesthetics in literature and the theatrical constructions of comic selves that form a huge archive of political speech on the social web. As the reference to Adichie’s Instagram post in the book’s opening shows, social media offers a playful arena of self-fashioning for writers that suggests that these two latter layers of representation are worthy of more scrutiny.

While this important book restates, and almost romanticizes, the popular idea that “cyberspace represents freedom and democracy” and that “fictional narratives reflect both the restrictions of the printed word and the freedom of online publishing (14), it sometimes takes for granted the extractive relations that exist between the corporate owners of the net’s infrastructures and African digital subjects using these ‘free’ platforms. Indeed, Adenekan recognizes that digital environments are “capitalist commercial mechanisms” and social media are “money-making ventures” that bring artistic practices and commercialization in a “symbiotic relationship” (6). As the author himself might be quick to admit, there is certainly more to be said here. We may ask, who is documenting the large data being produced on social media by African writers and for whom? Also, how does ephemera on social media affect the type and function of the archives produced by writers online?

These questions aside, Adenekan’s African Literature in the Digital Age matters as a field-defining work. It impels the reader to refuse the single story of Africa as a continent that is perpetually confronted with an increasing digital divide. Although digital divide is real, and restates one of Adenekan’s central arguments on class, this book excellently reveals many other stories and narratives. These stories enter on erotic archives, queer subjectivities, the disruptive figure of the modern girl, and other digital subjects whose artistic representations online Adenekan astutely renders legible. The author has done the excellent work the rest of us must now build upon.

Instagram Comedy and the Shadow of Nollywood

A scathing review of the political comedy Your Excellency, by Funke Akindele, written by an anonymous critic describes her directorial debut as a bunch of Instagram skits and not a movie. Rather than encountering ‘an amazing political comedy’ that satirizes Nigeria’s practice of democracy in a digital era, the audience, according to the anonymous reviewer, is made to endure ‘a string of Instagram skit videos, retinue of unnecessary actors and underdeveloped characters.’ This review embeds an implicit derogation of Instagram skits because they are not seen as professional or standard filmic practices, signaling attention to the conceptual dimensions of the argument that a Nollywood film is merely a pastiche of Instagram videos. Yet, the Instagram skit (or simply Instagram comedy, although these works circulate from and to several other platforms like TikTok and WhatsApp) has emerged as a new digital genre of Nigerian humor produced and circulated online for social media users targeted as fans and followers.

With superb performances by comedians who deploy humor as the means of interpreting local experiences for social media’s transnational audiences, the structure of the Instagram skit as a short text is based on few characters and a condensed plot that evolves over a short time span, usually between one to three minutes. A recurrent element of most texts of Instagram comedy is the sonic appropriation of soundbites from previously viral videos, such as Patience Jonathan’s famous “Okay continue” line. As these new digital genres of popular culture proliferate in recent years because of social and digital media, the prosthetic relations between comic videos that circulate on social media and the Nigerian film industry recall some of Nollywood’s most enduring subject matters and production dynamics.

#EndSARS, for instance, presented an opportunity to read the violence of police brutality through the pseudo-cinematic texts produced in real time by several online comedians including Debo Adedayo (@Mrmacaroni1) who documented the youth-led outcry against a dominant state repressive apparatus in their jokes. @Mrmacaroni1 who was later arrested at the now-infamous Lekki tollgate, also recorded his own encounter with the police in another series of skits that make legible the integration of social media affordances into the production of online stories against state domination. One of the major highlights of #EndSARS from the perspective of @Mrmacaroni1’s comedy is the convergence of the activistic and the artistic. Like the music of protest during #EndSARS, the real-time skits created by @Mrmacaroni1 to comment on the protest and invite more supporters online are significant aspects of the archive of narratives and images produced on the movement.

Although online social movements are not always examined in terms of the artistic practices that underpin and supplement them, the comedic texts of #EndSARS set up the conditions under which we may begin such engagements. This deliberate politicization of popular cultural form such as Instagram comedy, or the circulation of creative practices and activities on the internet for the purpose of resisting hegemonic power structures and ideologues is what I am describing as cultural netizenship in another work on social media-enabled popular performances in Nigeria. Unlike the normative performative signals of netizenship as an expression of Net citizenship, cultural netizenship evokes the deployment of visual and popular culture online to push back at oppressive power. But Cultural netizenship goes beyond humor and points to other regimes of visuality such as the creation of memes that foreground the remediation of Nollywood images for performative self-expressions online.

But as scholars like Jonathan Haynes and Akin Adesokan have shown, Nigerian popular representations have historically offered a terrain for the construction of politics. From Ola Balogun to Tunde Kelani, the genre of the political film in Nollywood is well established and enjoys considerable analytical exploration in Haynes’s 2016 volume on Nollywood. Gbenga Adewusi’s 1993 film Maradona (or Babangida must go) tackles the annulment of the 1993 presidential elections by General Ibrahim Babangida. For those who do see no connections between Nollywood and protest culture, films such as Adewusi’s offer some solid evidence. @Mrmacaroni1’s comedic videos continue this subversive tradition by rendering Instagram comic texts as reconstructions of the political. Hence, the crucial need to explore the discursive role of the social web in Nollywood’s political genre. Funke Akindele’s representation of social media in Your Excellency brilliantly offers a cinematic construction of Nigerian digital culture, showing Akindele’s savvy use of the platform to distribute her film projects.

Aside from the political uses of Instagram comedy, the production of these videos is similar to the do-it-yourself culture that inaugurated Nollywood, while the industry’s famous commercialism is a neat pretext for the widespread aspiration for commercialized artistic practices among Instagram comedians. Like early Nollywood, with its absence of big budgets and high production values, many of these comedians basically took narrative power in their own hands by grabbing a camera and shooting a viral, to borrow Kanye West’s lyrics from Power. The number of people who follow online comedians is vital and ultimately means that the skits produced by popular names such as @Taaooma (Maryam Apaokagi), @Officerwoos (Oladaposi Gbadamosi), and @Broda Shaggi (Samuel Animashaun Perry) eventually serve the logic of capital. For instance, @Mrmacaroni1 recently celebrated reaching 1 million followers on Instagram. The inference we may draw from this is not just about the much-coveted numbers many social media influencers crave for; it is also how the circulation of comic narratives is contingent on the shared participation of audiences that are invited in post-narrative commentaries that request them to “share or subscribe for more videos.”

With huge unemployment figures in Nigeria, Instagram skits serve as an entrepreneurial deployment of popular humor and reveals the capitalist transformation of online speech and agency into monetary opportunities. The Instagram skit implements a commodification of humor projected through narratives that both serve advertisers and entertainment, as the huge audience of the Instagram comedian is recognized by corporate patrons that are commissioned to make skits which advertise products. This way, the production of Instagram skits is both an expression of digital speech and, in more significant ways, a reiteration of the neoliberal logic of both Nollywood and the social media platforms that profit from the digital labors of users. Hence, Instagram comedy presents an excellent illustration of the commercialization of creativity that most animates the artistic practices of performers who started out as playful netizens on social media.

The many Nollywood stars who increasingly appear in these skits also consolidate the important linkages between Nollywood and social media texts of comedy, even as these characters feed off the influence economy from each other’s sectors, with Instagram comedians also featuring more prominently in new Nollywood movies. Thematically, although several of these comedians later explore other social issues, some of them abidingly retain perennial themes and style. For instance, @Taaooma makes skits that portray everyday realities which focus on mother-daughter conversations in Nigerian homes, but her comic style reinforces the stereotype of the so-called African mother as an inherently violent person who forbids the agency of children. This is, of course, not limited to @Taaooma. There are many other comedians, especially from Nigerian-diasporic communities, who project these single stories of African parents.

For his part, @Mrmacaroni1’s “Daddy Wa” character is a philandering agent who derives pleasure from the sexual objectification of women, although some would argue he merely uses this didactically to critique marital infidelity. Like the problematic depictions of women in Nollywood itself, which dates back to earlier androcentric representations of women in earlier popular forms such as Onitsha market literary pamphlets, @Mrmacaroni1’s skits depict women as materialistic subjects who depend on men and their money. While the men in these skits are often represented as wealthy and successful (in the case of Daddy Wa), women are consistently portrayed as sex objects who exist for male gaze and pleasure. There is an enormous body of work on this trashy representation of women in Nollywood, and several texts of Instagram comedy essentially rehash these ideologies, centering Nollywood as the dominant form of Nigerian popular culture.

Stereotypical representations aside, Nigerian online comedians are creating some of the most assured work on social media and are quickly perfecting a new genre of humor that invites us to imagine genealogical links between Nollywood and comedic practices on the participatory web. If Nollywood films dramatize the lives of everyday Nigerians faced with the postcolonial condition, the industry now has a shadow cultural economy that both ‘competes’ with it and strengthens it.