“Everywhere Felt and Nowhere Seen”: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and the “Sovereign Paradox”

Johanna Skibsrud


This paper argues that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart reflects what Giorgio Agamben refers to as the “sovereign paradox” on two levels: first—as reflected by the subject of the novel—on the juridico-political level, and second, on the level of the language and structure of the novel itself.  The relationship between these two levels is made clear by Agamben, who uses language as the prime example of the “sovereign paradox” implicit to the juridical order.  “Language,” he writes, “is the sovereign who, in a permanent state of exception, declares that there is nothing outside language and that language is always beyond itself” (21).  Obeirika’s words in Things Fall Apart: “There is no story that is not true” (Achebe 14), illustrates this “sovereign paradox” by pointing on the one hand to the omniscient authority of the narrative text, while on the other directly undermining that authority.  I argue that it is by doing away with the binary system of what can and should be considered true and untrue that the reflexive narrative – of which Achebe’s novel is a prime example – positions itself in a “permanent state of exception” (Agamben 21). Things Fall Apart establishes for itself “a zone of indistinction” (Agamben 47) characterized by the very impossibility of arriving at the “truth” as such, or “of distinguishing between outside and inside, nature and exception” (37). A “zone of indistinction” is constructed on a textual as well as a political-historical level by the novel’s transgression of its own narrative borders.

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