The “Work” of Wolof Literature and Film in the Age of Neoliberalism

Tobias Warner, French and Italian, UC Davis

This project explores the polyvalent figure of ‘work’ in recent Wolof cultural production since the neoliberal ‘restructuring’ of the Senegalese economy. This research entails a wide-ranging study of contemporary Wolof-language fiction, film and popular culture. The primary goal will be to trace a recent tendency to make poetic use of the ambiguity of the term liggéey (work). Liggéey in Wolof can mean labor in the conventional sense, but it also refers to gendered, domestic labor, witchcraft, and techniques of spiritual devotion, depending on the context. The tendency to knowingly superimpose these meanings in Wolof cultural production can be dated to the 1980s and 90s, when the Senegalese state was forced to accept a series of ‘structural adjustment’ loans from the IMF and the World Bank. The research aims to explore how contemporary Wolof cultural production marshals the ambiguity of ‘liggéey’ to satirize, query and critique the precarity of labor in contemporary Senegal. This research has the potential to generate far-reaching questions about aesthetic practices that engage with the transformations of labor in our current global conjuncture, since Senegal’s period of economic restructuring is in many ways the very prototype of the contemporary politics of austerity currently sweeping the global North.

Tobias Warner is an assistant professor at the University of California Davis and specializes in modern francophone and Wolof literatures. His current book project traces the emergence of the Senegalese literary field through a history of its friction with other cultures of textuality. Warner has published on francophone African authors such as Ahmadou Kourouma and Yambo Ouologuem, and translated the short stories of CC Sow. Other research and teaching interests include the politics of language in postcolonial literature and theory, the history of the French canon in colonial classrooms, world literature and problematics of comparison, and African language literatures after neoliberalism.