Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Fall 2008

The Oral and Beyond: Doing Things with Words in Africa. Ruth Finnegan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 320 pp.

Ruth Finnegan’s body of work in the field of African oral literature is foundational, and this book stands as another vital contribution, one which no scholar in the field will be able to ignore. A collection of variously updated older essays, framed by a new preface and epilogue, this work is overtly retrospective of the history of the study of oral literature in Africa, yet fundamentally targeted, as becomes evident in the book’s final sections, towards assisting, if not affecting, a paradigm shift in the study and conception of the oral in Africa.

Arguing that the study of African oral literature has expanded so much since her foundational Oral Literature in Africa (1970) that she could not possibly address such changes comprehensively, Finnegan’s expressed intent at the outset of this volume is “to extend, contextualise and in some respects qualify [her earlier positions] from the perspective of later research and thinking" (p. 1). And, indeed, Finnegan does achieve this, bringing a broad range of sources from disciplines as diverse as linguistics, performance studies, anthropology, new media, and literature to bear on key issues such as the recording and transcription of performance events, the textuality of oral utterances, and the centrality of performativity in many oral forms (with her title strongly echoing J.L. Austin’s 1962, How to Do Things With Words). Yet, qualification itself is a somewhat modest goal, and if it were truly the prime value of this book it would be difficult to consider it to be more than a historiographic supplement to her earlier groundbreaking works. And, indeed, Finnegan’s intentions can at times prove somewhat slippery and confounding in the book’s early sections. In that this volume is surely targeted at a specialist audience who are already aware of Finnegan’s existing contribution to the field, reading some of her earlier essays, many of which are republished here with only minor changes (including, most conspicuously, the first chapter of Oral Literature in Africa), one may wonder at some points where and when the bite of this volume will manifest beyond modest qualifications, or whether, in fact, this book should be billed more as a ‘Ruth Finnegan reader’ than a monograph.

Yet, while this volume never loses its retrospective stance, sometimes to the detriment of highlighting the urgent relevance of some of its points, as the blurb on the book’s cover promises this work does come to a “provocative conclusion.” The more pointed arguments of the final sections of the volume are of tremendous import, and in many ways justify the particular make-up of the volume as a whole, in that Finnegan’s somewhat quiet approach to these more timely issues proves to provide a rich context in which to consider them. The most notable conclusion that Finnegan comes to derives from her seemingly innocuous initial observation that “Africa is celebrated above all for the treasure of her voiced and auditory arts, and as the home of oral literature, orature and orality, and the genesis and inspiration of the voiced traditions of the great diaspora” (1). Yet, as this volume progresses Finnegan demonstrates that this notion is ultimately dubious, not only empirically in the study of expressive forms, but also ethically. Finnegan links the continuing characterization of ‘Africa-as-oral’ to the age-old binary dictating the overall conception of Africa as fundamentally Other. She argues that, whether applied in denigrating terms to characterize Africa as ‘primitive’ and the like, or more romantically by those wishing to champion orality as Africa’s ancient and distinct domain, the primacy placed upon the oral as that which defines Africa distorts the dynamics of expressive forms themselves (of which words are only but one, albeit often important, factor), and fastens Africa time and again in the slot of absolute difference. Concomitant to this argument is Finnegan’s disavowal of the broader world-wide “linguistic myth,” defined as “a cognitive language-centered model of the nature and destiny of humanity,” and which ties the evolution of humankind to its relations with words (p. 206). Whether tethered to notions of writing and the printing press as fundamental leaps forward in human nature, or in the championing of orality as Africa’s patrimony, the very infatuation with the word as the key portal through which human evolution can be judged disturbs Finnegan.

Of course, these observations are not entirely new (nor does Finnegan claim they are), with earlier studies such as Vail and White’s Power and the Praise Poem (1991) having forcefully made these points. Yet, Finnegan uses these observations in an original way, pushing towards a more dynamic approach to African expressive forms. This reconceptualization requires an understanding that, “[s]peech may have been pictured as the essential human attribute but it does not stand on its own: it is inextricably intertwined with other modes of human interaction, gestural, bodily, visual, artefactual, tactile” (p. 209). Thus, tapping into the general turn towards interdisciplinarity in the academy, Finnegan argues that ‘oral literature’ is itself an illusory, incomplete, and drastically confined characterization of the dynamic and multisensory nature of expressive forms in Africa. In this light, The Oral and Beyond points not just beyond Africa to art forms and scholarship generated from abroad, or beyond the ethnocentric stereotypes which studies of the oral seem to inevitably buttress, but also fundamentally beyond the oral as the defining characteristic of African expressive forms. In this manner, this volume is a strong antidote to the conceptual and ethical stagnations produced by what Isabel Hofmeyr (1994) has decried as dominant and ever-lurking ‘literary formalisms’ in the study of verbal arts Ultimately, The Oral and Beyond translates and synthesizes many of the best past and contemporary insights of a range of disciplines within a perspective only to be derived from the half-century of Finnegan’s own career, and pushes the study of oral literature beyond its contemporary boundaries.

T. Spreelin MacDonald
Ohio University