Charting Out Ethiopian Modernity and Modernism
This is a valuable reading to contain the “obscurities” vulgarizing out of
“Developmental Patrimonialism“ -“the New Ideology designed for Africa”
Volume 33, Number 1, Winter 2010
Any meaningful discussion of modernity, modernism, and modernization in Ethiopia has yet to take place among Ethiopian intellectuals. Scholars have attempted to talk about the projects of Ethiopian modernity, in a narrow range of meaning that neglects to construct the processes of modernity within the discursive space of its multiplicity and cultural specificity. Not only does the discourse lack the focus of the metanarrative of modernity, that of the methodological, archival, and theoretical requirements particular to modernist studies, but the theoretical charters of many Ethiopian intellectuals also falls short of looking at the totality of the political, social, and cultural phenomena of Ethiopian modernity, within the paradox shared by all non-Western modernities. Conventional preconceptions by Ethiopian historians of modernity and modernism are often confused with processes of modernization complicit in projects of nation and Empire. Hence, the discourse of Ethiopian modernity has often been informed by the socioeconomic phenomena of modernization in the context of development and where modernity, modernization, and Westernization are considered identical.
For instance, in Bahru Zewde’s Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia: The Reformist Intellectuals of the Early Twentieth Century, a seminal book for being the first document of Ethiopian intellectual history, the author deliberates on concepts of modernization in different parts of the world and particularly in Japan. The book gives a historical account of Ethiopia’s interaction with the Western world to come up with lists of early intellectuals that were acclimated to Western education. Without articulating the broad historical movement of modernity, the book freely interchanges notions of modernization theory with modernity, short of producing a coherent framework that situates Ethiopia and Ethiopian intellectuals in the scaffold of global modernity politics. Instead, it generates a narrative of modernization which expresses the vision, most successfully implanted in the mass consciousness of post-war Japan. This book, which is a primary document that details the contribution of modern Ethiopian intellectuals, therefore falls short in accounting the disciplinary identity and purpose of modernity as an inquiry of thought and experience in this period of the “modern” that is covered in the book, and as a form of historical consciousness. Modernity and modernism, therefore, have often been used in Ethiopian scholarship to signify Europeanization and Westernization. Modern or modernity is nevertheless a spatio-temporally-based concept which is not constituted by fixed sociohistorical traits. It is on the contrary shaped in a contested space of decisions and actions in which ideas are unremittingly critiqued and revised. [End Page 82]
Furthermore, epistemological insight to bear on the notion of the “modern” and the meaning of modernity in African societies particularly requires the investigation of European modernity within the climate of Europe’s colonialist aggressions. The agency of Africans in fashioning their own modernity shapes itself in a continuous space of contestation that critically engages European projects of modernity, its history, and its intellectual tradition. The question then is how to frame the discourse of Ethiopian modernity and modernism in an intellectual history that has neglected the evaluation of these important issues in the making of modernity. Although Ethiopia has never been colonized, I argue that the interrogation of Ethiopian modernity has in the main manifested itself in the dichotomy of “Other” and “Otherness.” The question of “Otherness” as a central moral and political issue is one that cannot be ignored and its predicament extends itself to self-questioning that was usually attended by a sense of acknowledgement of alterity. This alterity was at once highly local in its engagement with the urgent political and social problems of Ethiopia and widely pertinent in its confrontation of the ethical demands of “Otherness.”
Whether Ethiopia was colonized or not, the belief of “Otherness” prevailed because just like any other non-Western society, Ethiopia was posited by the West in a Eurocentric archetype that has historically excluded discourse of alterity and that perceived subordinated groups from the point of view of a dominant “first world” culture. I will further elaborate this in the works of the writers of the newspaper Berhanena Selam and in Gebre Hiwot Baykedagn’s work Atse Menelik and Ethiopia (Emperor Menelik and Ethiopia) to investigate the relation of “Otherness” to culture and knowledge in the beginning dialogue of Ethiopian modernity.
How did the modernist intellectuals of Ethiopia fashion their own distinctive response to the larger paradigm of European modernity? Despite their history of not being colonized, how did they apprehend an alterity that made demands on them not by entering into dialogue with them, but by the very intensity of its un-ignorable being that had excluded them from its discourse, but had simultaneously imposed itself upon the prevailing discourse? How did the discourse of modernity that estranged as it enticed, that fore-grounded the symbolic as it exploited the imaginary pronounce itself in the writings of these intellectuals? How did the scanty changes in technology impact the form and reception of early intellectual thought? More importantly, how was the nation imagined and articulated by these intellectuals, which I believe informed the discourse of modernity that translated state and its citizen in the configuration of Ethiopian modernity.
The relation between the state and the citizen and the state’s many interventions in the life of the citizen is especially important in the construction of the imagination of the nation where the tension between the state and an independent intelligentsia at times confronted each other in an open ended contest where overall control by both parties was not possible or desirable. One especially sees this contestation in Gebre Hiwot Baykedagn’s Atse Menelik and Ethiopia. I believe that this work, although mentioned by many intellectuals including Bahru Zewde as an important document of its time, has not been decoded effectively in its instrumentality and direct referentiality to the discussion of Ethiopian modernity. I especially consider this work to have opened a space for the apprehension of “Otherness” despite the exceptionalist performative text of the nation in the larger narrative of Ethiopian history. Although not as critical as Gebre Hiwot Baykedgan, the writers of Berhanena Selam also depict the complex ways in which the interplay between modernity and the construction of the nation was played. [End Page 83]
The discursive performance of nationhood by the state through the conspicuous representations of an all encompassing affinity to national value and myth, constructed and imagined through shared experiential spaces, is therefore an unexamined premise that I attempt to explore in this paper. I believe that looking at the discursive parameters of the concept of the “nation,” in addition to the intellectuals’ deliberation of alterity, is critical to map the intellectual and ideological framework of the foundational narrative of Ethiopian modernity and modernism.
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without its early history. Early narratives are bridging texts that establish connections
between present spaces of discourse and the past. Furthermore, present Ethiopian
modernity discourses are a product of different discourses where present discourses have
shaped the interpretation of past ones. I consider that the ideas of the intellectuals of Berhanena
Selam and Gebre Hiwot Baykedagn root the source of the discourse of Ethiopian
modernity. It is critical to note that contemporary understanding of Ethiopian modernity
and modernism widely derives from the space of modernity in Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia.
It is also critical to note that it is the perspective that predicates itself on a significant
examination of past and present discourses that comes up with the genesis and temporality
of the meaning of modernity, in this space of Haile Selassie’s reign that is widely
thought to have foregrounded the space of modernity and modernism. The connections
and contrasts between earlier thoughts and the present suggest several ways in which
the examination of discourse might be constituted. I want to emphasize that attending to
the discursive and ontological processes of modernity through the critical look of Gebre
Hiwot Baykedagn and the intellectuals of Berhanena Selam on basic themes of the Ethiopian
imaginary is more a starting point than a store of conclusions. The need to begin this type
of discourse that is completely lacking from our academic institutions is paramount if we
are to place modern Ethiopian history in proper perspective.”
Elizabeth Wolde Giorgis, who is completing the PhD degree in art history at Cornell University, is the Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University. She has curated a number of visual art exhibitions in Addis Ababa and has also given talks on art in Germany, the United States, and Sweden, as well as in Ethiopia. Her publications have appeared in such periodicals as Africa Today, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, and Journal of Ethiopian Studies. She has edited a number of texts, such as Contemporary Ethiopian Art in a Changing World (London, 2007), Gebre Kritos Desta: The Painter Poet (Germany, 2006), and (with Salah Hassan and Dagmawi Woubshet) Modernity, Pedagogy and Art Education (Amsterdam, 2008).