By Adagbo Onoja
It is since 1962 that Oxford University’s John Austin delivered his “How to Do Things With Words” but, till today, the idea that it is language rather than reason or nature that creates reality is still difficult to accept by many people. How could mere words create reality, they ask. What have words got to do with an aeroplane crashing from the sky or an earthquake? But an earthquake itself has no meaning until people mediate it. It is then that it is either understood as “a movement of tectonic plates or manifestation of the wrath of the gods”. The same thing with an air crash. An air crash in itself makes no sense until a dominant sense of it comes out from competing explanations by aviation experts, journalists, industry investors and religious leaders. It is only then that everyone settles into accepting pilot carelessness or bad weather or poor maintenance. This is why it has been claimed that naming a reality is more important than reality itself because the guy whose own narrative of any reality is most accepted becomes the hegemon, the powerful.
This is the reason the media is so powerful because the media is the biggest site for the language game or discourses, if you like. And this is why those who control the most influential media outlets and the sites for discourses such as the universities will always remain very powerful although this is not to suggest that the readers, viewers or listeners to the media, to theories, to concepts and other forms of discourses consume them without interrogation. It is because they do so that the language game or power is perpetually fluid.
If language is power and Prof Gabriel Egbe of Veritas University is saying that language or words usage is a context sensitive rather than a project of proficiency in Lexis and Structure, then he is, by implication, pushing the possibility of a tectonic re-arrangement of power in the same decentering proportion that Jacques Derrida’s attack on Western metaphysics occasioned. It has nothing to do with whether he personally subscribes to this interpretation or not. It has more to do with his agreement with the grandmasters in this game – Ferdinand de Saussure and Antonio Gramsci. Both of them went to the same school and each came up with something new about language as power. De Saussure told the world that when we utter the word ‘dog’ or ‘man’ or ‘girl’ or whatever – what he calls the signifier – that signifier refers to nothing in itself. Whatever any of them comes to mean is because everyone in a certain community or social space has come to have that meaning of the particular signifier. That is the reason things do not have universal names. Dog is the English word for what it conjures in the mentality of English speakers today but that is not what a non-English speaker calls the same animal. And so on and so forth. Gramsci, being the communist he is, took an ideological view of language.
By advancing the notion of ‘Englishes’, Nigeria’s Prof Egbe is basically saying that language is not innocent; language always captures a specific experience and only by accepting the principle of ‘Englishes’ do we emancipate all non-ancestral users of English from the orthodoxy ingrained in so-called standard English. This is the basis of the inference in linking Egbe’s thesis of ‘Englishes’ to Derrida’s attack on logocentrism. This is a perfectly plausible interpretation of his keynote address to the 37th Annual Conference of English Scholars Association of Nigeria at the University of Ilorin in Nigeria earlier this week by the title “Beyond Disruptive and Challenging Times: Change and Innovation in the English Language and Literary Studies Ecosystem in Nigeria”. It doesn’t matter that Egbe did not stress the tectonic import in the title, probably as a matter of modesty.
Senior members of the literati, experts in Sociolinguistics and other experts are yet to engage with Prof Egbe’s move. Nigeria and, indeed, the academic world are bound to do so soonest, to clarify, modify and possibly extend the argument already put on the table. The National Universities Commission, (NUC) must have already taken note of how this argument rubs off on it, the argument and the conceptual poverty it exposes in some of NUC’s subject definition not coming from a bad radical this time but from a friendly, good radical such as Prof Egbe. But while stakeholders – academics, popular culture, managers of Nigeria’s media platforms, intellectuals of statecraft such the military, the guys in foreign affairs and even Nigerian businessmen and women, are engaging with whatever tension and inconsistencies might exist in the theory of Englishes, let no one deny this professor and the university he is based an acknowledgment of the novelty of ‘Englishes’. A number of reasons can be adduced for this position.
Prof Egbe is stepping out in thinking theoretically at a time of great shrink from doing so. Theorising is not thriving, not only in Nigeria but nearly across the world. Obsession with empirical research because of the ill-informed emphasis on publishing or perishing has reduced theorising to middle range abstractions. But, if such were what Aristotle, Plato, Marx and co were doing, would the world be where it is today?
Two, Egbe is also stepping out at a time when scholars are, to use the ever memorable words of University of Ibadan’s Prof Adigun Agbaje again, murmuring rather than shouting. The academic culture in Nigeria has, not surprisingly perhaps, turned against shouting in the sense Agbaje could have meant it. Scholars or potential scholars have learnt the wisdom of false humility and ‘murmuring’ in an arena of endless contestations such as academia where ‘shouting’ is, otherwise, an imperative. How can anyone shout with nothing else than statistics not converted into some theory?
Three, Veritas University, Abuja from where Egbe is ‘shouting’ is the most unlikely places to hear that from. It is still too young (and not that rich in material terms) to have established academic traditions supportive of a major theoretical push as Egbe’s language game. It bears repeating that this is, perhaps another illustration of the confidence of success that often leads to success, as they say. The Bishop-owners have kept talking about the university becoming the Harvard of Nigeria. Who can say that something like that might not be in the offing with this outing? There is probably the need to buttress this particular point.
The Cold War had not ended before it was declared that there had been a historic rupture in which textuality had gained the upper hand in the historical bout against objective reality or neopositivism, if you like. The ‘dissidents’ (that is the name the core group in International Relations gave themselves) who are making this point said that the rupture was such that there had been a shift from the ‘mode of production’ analysis to the ‘mode of information’. And that a representational practice of power aimed at disciplining (in the Foucauldian sense), deterrence and compellence is at work. In other words, the shift is also about the unfolding of the ‘empire of signs’, exercising even stronger influence than traditional imperialism and confirming Michael Shapiro’s point that “to see the world as a text is to confront the issue of meaning in a radically new way”
If a signifier has no direct relationship with the signified or if the signifier and the signified have no more than an arbitrary relationship, then isn’t Egbe’s ‘Englishes’ and ‘Ninglish’ – its Nigerian version – a strategy of national liberation in a textual of images, graphics and bytes, all coded in the text producer’s ‘English’? Of course, it is. Unfortunately, this ‘empire of signs’ still get academics, national security players, the media and politicians in countries such as Nigeria all easily worked up in the purchase that texts such as ‘ungoverned spaces’, ‘failed states’ or ‘the coming anarchy’ have in such countries. All because we read them as innocent expressions without linking them to the ‘English’ or cultural specificity of the text producers and, therefore, “the power of words in international relations” that scholars such as University of Sydney’s Charlotte Epstein are propounding. And all because the social science curriculum in Nigerian universities today ought to have been thrown into the lagoon and then re-issued since. Social science has gone beyond what we are teaching these children who will be replacing this generation in another few decades. As Prof Egbe showed in his presentation at the Ilorin Conference, even the NUC minimum for a discipline like English (which is very 21st century in content in Nigeria unlike, say, Political Science or Sociology) is outdated.
For academic, social, permissible university chauvinism and even nationalism, this is worth sharing drinks over. But who will call the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ to the ‘Staff Club’ at Veritas University for this to happen?
Mr. Onoja, an Editorial Associate of Intervention, teaches Political Science at Veritas University, Abuja