Deconstruction is one of the most significant and controversial intellectual movements of the 20th and 21st centuries. Beginning with the French writer Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), and subsequently adopted by many others, the reading strategy known as deconstruction works to dislocate or destabilize the structures and assumptions that shape human history. Deconstruction calls into question the fundamental concepts and hierarchies of Western philosophy, demonstrates how notions of “writing” and “text” are generalizable beyond human language and thought, and foregrounds the undecidable or incalculable aspects of reading and being. Through extremely attentive readings of philosophical and psychoanalytic texts, Derrida’s work brings to light the various centrisms and oppositions upon which they are based (centrisms such as logocentrism; anthropocentrism; and phallocentrism; and oppositions such as nature and culture; life and death; presence and absence; speech and writing; human beings and other animals). Alongside having a strong engagement with contemporary issues in society and politics, Derrida was consistently concerned with the literary effects at work in both literary and nonliterary texts, recognizing that meaning and context can neither be absolutely closed off nor fixed by author or reader. Contrary to common misapprehensions about deconstruction, the recognition of the irreducible literariness of all writing is not to suggest that texts are “meaningless,” and nor is Derrida’s generalized notion of writing meant to privilege language over the real world. Its sustained attention to literature and the effects of reading and writing perhaps account for why deconstruction has been, and is still, most eminent within the field of literary studies. Indeed, much of the prominent deconstructive work after Derrida—including, for example, that of Hélène Cixous, Paul de Man, and J. Hillis Miller—is explicitly and primarily concerned with reading literature. That said, deconstruction cannot be reduced to merely a mode of literary criticism, and it remains influential in numerous other fields, including cultural studies, the environmental humanities, feminism, film studies, history, the life sciences, philosophy, politics, psychoanalysis, queer theory, and religious studies, to name a few.
Though the two fields have rarely been put in conversation, African philosophy and African fiction share a set of foundational concerns. These include the relation of the individual to the community; the significance of culture to unseating exclusively Western universalisms; and the tension between “lived” and a priori claims to truth against a background of political and epistemological decolonization. In addition to this substantive thematic core, both fields have also been shaped by an acute and even anguished degree of self-definitional questioning. What is “African” about African philosophy, or about the African novel? And inversely, what is fundamental to philosophy or the novel as such? Orality has served in both fields as a means of gauging the relative knowledge value afforded experience, on the one hand, and ideas’ formal contestation, on the other. While strong advocates of orality as a distinguishing feature of African intellectual production have extolled its collective dimensions, critics have been wary of its potential for cultural reductiveness and essentialism. Textuality, some argue, is an epistemological orientation that exceeds the literal practice of writing, and need not be viewed as a historical development at odds with African knowledge traditions. A number of influential African philosophers have homed in on the related problem of individualism in an effort to differentiate philosophical from social-scientific claims. This makes African philosophy an ideal interlocutor for African novel studies, which has sought in its own right to reconcile the form’s historical premium on the individual with African social contexts. While countless African novels from the mid-20th century to the early 21st century represent the challenge of negotiating between collective and individual as well as oral and textual elements, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s masterwork Kintu is an exemplary study in how the subgenre of the “philosophical novel” can narrativize the interaction of different African knowledge paradigms. In its staging of an oral, embodied system of knowledge alongside a textualized, meta-epistemological one, it invites the reader’s mutual evaluation of each vis-à-vis the other.