Open City, Open Text: Teju Cole, Digital Humanities, and the Limits of Epistemologyand the Limits

Rhonda Cobham-Sander


Teju Cole’s artistic practice straddles the border between digital and analog forms. By repurposing each medium’s conventions, he foregrounds the epistemological assumptions that undergird them. His work affords us new insights into how the internet and the Digital Humanities have changed our reading practices, especially as these relate to “African literature.” In Open City, the blurring of generic boundaries between born-digital and print artifacts forces both reader and author to grapple with the epistemological limits of narrative. The novel’s cryptic allusions to specific writers, musical compositions, venues, and historical events function like hyperlinks inserted into a web-based text, inviting us to investigate their significance to the plot by Googling them online. Cole also uses digital resources as prosthetic devices to augment the sensory experience of silent reading. When the links introduce us to actual figures, like the contemporary French philosophers Badiou and Serres, whose work we can then Google, they encourage us to fantasize that we, too, can aspire to the narrator’s capacious knowledge even though, like the figure of son in the oedipal encounter, we never quite believe that we can best him. However, our sense of inadequacy in the face of the narrator’s seemingly infinite networks of information turns out to be inconsequential. Instead, the tensions between each chapter’s internal coherence and the conceptual links between the chapters open up cracks in the consistency of the presentation itself. Julius’s mastery of the conditions of knowledge associated with art, politics and science come under pressure as his incapacity to articulate the condition of love looms large. Once we supplant Julius as the ethical framer at the novel’s sensate core, however, we become in our turn “the subject presumed to know” and must grapple with the void that inevitably threatens to destabilize that subject.


Teju Cole; Badiou; Serres;

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