Paperwork: Modernism and Bureaucracy in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1884-1966

Project Details


Modernist literature about Sub-Saharan Africa is littered with
paperwork, from account books in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of
Darkness (1899) and school certificates in Wole Soyinka’s The
Interpreters (1966) to Mary Kingsley’s tattered travel permits. While
often overlooked in scholarship, these functional documents
constituted the way individuals first encountered the relentlessly
bureaucratic machine of Empire or Apartheid. This project asks how
British, Nigerian and South African modernist writers represented,
and themselves made use of, all this paperwork. My hypothesis is
that such engagement was often subversive in order to critique the
imperial or state regime, for instance through the use of formal
strategies such as fragmentation. By excavating files and folders
from both modernist writings and colonial archives, the project
transforms our understanding of modernism in two way. It newly
shows (1) that modernist engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa was
sophisticated and political, rather than merely driven by a fascination
with the exotic, the violent and the primitive; (2) that this engagement
was inventively conveyed through aesthetic and material strategies,
which reveal and challenge the hidden ways colonial/state power
operated through piles of paperwork.
StatusNot started
Effective start/end date1/10/2230/09/25


  • Modernism
  • print/paper culture
  • empire and postcolonial

Flemish discipline codes

  • Postcolonial studies
  • Literatures in English
  • Modern literature