These qualities in the work and their producer, it seems to me, have set TJ apart as a person, a scholar, and an administrator. The idea of “critical self-reflexivity,” being self-accounting, makes a lot of sense in an intellectual outlook in which pomp and circumstance, the accustomed features of the charismatic figure, are held to be less useful in getting work done.

There are very few scholars in the world of African literary and cultural studies and criticism for whom the axiom that one’s identity lies in what one professes is completely true. Tejumola Olaniyan belongs to that rare breed. If you were to look him up for a personal profile that academics are increasingly encouraged to produce in the service of corporate marketing, you will find very little. That little, though, is precious and profound: “My deep interest,” he declares, “is transdisciplinary teaching and research. My goal is the cultivation of critical self-reflexivity about our expressions and their many contexts.”

What does one make of this declaration that comes across as both explicit and cryptic, at once? The perspective on view here is one that can be understood only in terms of experiences mediated by theory. Nearly every noun has a theoretical lineage of its own, and to try to convey the meanings embedded in each lineage, at several levels, is to traffick in a terrain in which one becomes what one does.

The additional challenge for me in writing about TJ is that he is not just, to me, another African, Nigerian scholar, or friend. He is my brother from another mother, as we say. Since meeting him for the first time, in 1994 (although I might have encountered him in Ile-Ife in late 1986), we have become part of each other’s world, our worlds have become one, though still with distinct characteristics because even brothers must steer individual courses…

And yet the most fitting tribute one can pay a scholar is to celebrate the best qualities in his work, especially a scholar who has achieved true distinction in his field and who enjoys worldwide, unqualified respect among his peers.

This is why I want to return to TJ’s “goal” in the self-description quoted above: “the cultivation of critical self-reflexivity about our expressions and their many contexts.”

As I recall, the one word he used to understand the observations, apparently explaining it to himself even as we spoke, was “enchanting.” I’d read that Weber spoke of modernity as “the disenchantment of the world,” but I had no idea how the leap, if that had occurred. No matter.

Many years ago, I think it was during the winter break of 2000, when I left Ithaca to spend Christmas with him and his family in Charlottesville, Virginia, we got talking about the manuscript he had just begun writing, what would become the book Arrest the Music! his cultural biography of the Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

Reading up on Fela, listening to his music, reviewing scholarship about modern African and postcolonial socio-cultural change, TJ told me, had convinced him of the passage (read “supersession” for theory) of a kind of political personality. This was the type called “the charismatic leader” — like Vladimir Lenin, Emma Goldman, Kwame Nkrumah, or Fidel. Such was the scale and scope of cultural change in the modern era that the instruments and forms of social organisation were seen to have successfully shifted the responsibility of management to bureaucrats and technocrats and power no longer resided exclusively in the rhetorical antics of a singular personality.

Much of this sounded like what sociologists (Max Weber, C. Wright Mills, Talcott Parsons) had been saying in various ways, and that Michel Foucault had done so much to drill into the consciousness of anyone who happened to be in graduate school in English and the Romance languages. What made it striking and memorable for me, however, was how TJ was using these observations to advance his own scholarly orientation, with respect to the material before him.

As I recall, the one word he used to understand the observations, apparently explaining it to himself even as we spoke, was “enchanting.” I’d read that Weber spoke of modernity as “the disenchantment of the world,” but I had no idea how the leap, if that had occurred. No matter. We weren’t at a graduate seminar, but in his house, having drinks and waiting to screen Salem Mekuria’s Deluge

I would later encounter a fragment of this idea in cold print, in his characterisation of the “postcolonial incredible,” the social wreck that elicits the hymn which is Afrobeat, in the opening chapter of Arrest the Music!

It is too much to ask of one person, I often tease him. But I also know that that is his own way of fully accounting for himself. He embodies that African (Yoruba) principle of individuality in which to carry out a duty is less to serve others than to enhance one’s personality.

This may sound contentious, but TJ’s observations with respect to the nature of modern consciousness were a maturation of a personal outlook, brought about by his professionalisation as a literary scholar. A maturation because, even in the writings that he published before fully encountering Foucauldian ideas in American graduate school, one could already discern that outlook in stylistic terms.

(In the 1980s, The Guardian newspaper in Lagos published a weekly Literary Series, including full-length essays on notable writers, besides poems, stories, and short review. Those essays were later collected into the two-volume Perspectives on Nigerian Literature, edited by Yemi Ogunbiyi. Of the 53 essays in the second volume, TJ wrote eight, the most contributions by a single person in that volume.)

The essays and reviews were marked by a certain objectivity — the focus is ever on the work in front of the critic — and although surprising turns of phrase were never lacking, the aim was to sublimate self-dramatisation to the material integrity of the work. I also have the strong feeling that his frequency on the list of contributors was a result of his sense of responsibility: Editors turned to him often because they knew he would not fail to come through.

These qualities in the work and their producer, it seems to me, have set TJ apart as a person, a scholar, and an administrator. The idea of “critical self-reflexivity,” being self-accounting, makes a lot of sense in an intellectual outlook in which pomp and circumstance, the accustomed features of the charismatic figure, are held to be less useful in getting work done. Imagine a town-hall meeting in which ideas were freely canvassed. One or two people would speak loudly and frequently. They would propose beautiful and ambitious ideas and robustly debate those ideas. When time came to assign duties, the loud ones were nowhere to be seen, no longer to be heard. It is the likes of TJ that were left writing up the communique, and serving on the committees…

It is too much to ask of one person, I often tease him. But I also know that that is his own way of fully accounting for himself. He embodies that African (Yoruba) principle of individuality in which to carry out a duty is less to serve others than to enhance one’s personality.

Akin Adesokan teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA.

This write up is a contribution to an April 2019 publication in honour of Tejumola Olaniyan, the renowned transdisciplinary scholar, who passed on Saturday 30th November at his home in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. The title is slightly edited to capture the meaning of the experience it sought to acknowledge.