In This Article Abdul R. JanMohamed

  • Introduction
  • General Series Editor
  • References

Literary and Critical Theory Abdul R. JanMohamed
by
Tirtha Prasad Mukhopadhyay
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0087

Introduction

Abdul R. JanMohamed (b. 1945) has made a seminal contribution to postcolonial and black studies since the early 1980s. JanMohamed was born and raised in Kenya and educated in Britain and the United States, receiving his PhD from Brandeis University. Since 1982 he has taught in the English Department of the University of California, Berkeley, and has also been Longstreet Professor of English at Emory University. He developed a body of Marxian-psychoanalytical criticism based on Marx, Foucault, Fanon, and Freud. Most of his important publications came out in the 1980s and 1990s, although he is continuing to write and diversify into other areas of postcolonial criticism like Subaltern and Dalit literature. In the 1980s JanMohamed started with analysis of the psychopolitical structures of colonial and African English novels written by Joyce Cary, Isak Dinesen, Nadine Gordimer, Chinua Achebe, Alex La Guma, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In the next phase of his writings, he critiqued the African American slave autobiography of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the novels of Richard Wright, which now constitute an ideological reference for all future criticism on the literature of colonized and marginalized peoples. His most important single-author publications include Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa (1983) for which he was awarded the Choice book of the year award in 1984. The other crucial read is The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death (2005) about which Rolland Murray insightfully commented in the journal Novel: A Forum on Fiction (Murray 2006, cited under Book Reviews) that “Should African American studies continue in its pursuit of rendering the vagaries of death intellectually legible, the field should turn to this book as one of its signal events” (Exquisite Corpus, p. 302). JanMohamed considers racial lynching as the most fundamental mode of coercion. In his work on African American Literature, he develops a reflexive Marxian-phenomenological approach through which he deconstructs the feelings of marginalized protagonists who, faced with the threat of death by lynching, begin to contemplate the effects of that threat on their subjectivities. He suggests that the threat of death activates the death drive like a negative dialectic in subjects irremediably trapped between two cultures. In 1985, along with Donna Przybylowicz, he founded and edited the journal Cultural Critique, which at the time offered one of the very few venues for the theorization of postcolonial and American minority discourses. His recent works involve psychoanalytical studies of Dalit narratives of the Indian subcontinent. JanMohamed’s critical oeuvre has been acclaimed and translated into other Asian languages.

Single-Author Books

A good way to get introduced to JanMohamed’s Marxian-psychoanalytic criticism is through two synoptic book publications, JanMohamed 1983 and JanMohamed 2005 (cited under African American Literature and Criticism), which contain his early writings in a coherent and interconnected form. The first of these books, JanMohamed 1983, considers how the colonial context produces six very different literary responses from three European and three African writers connected to Africa. This book examines the effects of settler colonialism, non-settler colonialism, and apartheid society on a pair of writers from each context (one white and one black). In the shift to the US context, JanMohamed 2005 examines how the ubiquitous practice of lynching in slave and Jim Crow societies provokes a resistance in the works of individuals like Frederick Douglass and Richard Wright. The ubiquitous, unpredictable, and arbitrary threat of death is the most fundamental mode of coercion for JanMohamed. The threat of death forces the oppressed subject to believe that one can achieve agency and freedom only by embracing death and overcoming the fear of it that binds one as a slave (see JanMohamed 2010 under subsection Frederick Douglass/Slave Narratives). JanMohamed 2005, the latter single-author book on “the death-bound-subject,” argues that Wright’s short stories, autobiography, and novels are excavations of the successively deeper layers of subjectivity that coalesce around the death threat that confronts enslaved individuals.

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