Wednesday, August 12, 2009

At stake in the South

Isabel Hofmeyr

During their studio session, “Cultures of the Political”, Sarah Nuttall and Isabel Hofmeyr offered us two modes for understanding cultural forms of the political in the Southern Hemisphere. Nuttall’s could be identified as ‘the national contemporary’ and Hofmeyer’s ‘the historical international’. Nuttall concerns herself with contemporary, urban South African youth culture and the possibilities it offers for yielding a viable cross-racial South African city, namely Johannesburg. “How are young Africans shaping the [South] African modern?” and can we “deprovincialize Africa and African self-stylization” toward “developing new theories of modernity?” she asks. While Hofmeyer’s project is more historical—the Indian Ocean as a political, economic and cultural construct that fostered and continues to foster a set of relations among the countries and people that reside along it—similarly it challenges us to rethink ‘the global’ and ‘the local’ that have rendered South Africa. Both ask us to take into account alternative imaginings of South Africa that consider the South African nation and the Southern Hemisphere as sites of universalisms.

Interestingly these positings of Southern universalisms, particularly Hofmeyr’s, produced heated debate amongst the workshop about the real possibilities of these kinds of projects. What is the “Global South” exactly?, one participant asked. Another highlighted the romantic nature of the Indian/African solidarity that Hofmeyr’s project supposedly requires. While still another wondered at the correlation between the recent prevalence of this kind of work on India and Africa and the emergence of India and China as semi-imperial powers. Hofmeyr herself acknowledged the difficulty of this kind of excavation during her introduction to her work and throughout the session. Yet, it seems to me that Hofmeyr’s project provided the idiom through which our collective could begin an earnest exchange on what exactly it means to theorize the “South”, as a cultural, political, economic and social construct, from the “South”. The notion of the South as culturally particular and different from the Northern Hemisphere seemed to come most into question during this session. As a feeble gesture toward a conclusion (at least of this year’s workshop) I would like to use a considerable portion of my blog to consider why the South is so contested as I understand the South to be of the utmost importance to our gathering.

Hofmeyr’s Indian Ocean operates as a “Common”, to borrow from Michael Hardt, that need not be inherently Eurocentric. (All oceans, seas, bodies of water can represent the Common as international law dictates that they cannot be owned by individuals but I want to think about the exchange of ideas and commodities, and the movements of people specific to Indian Ocean as a loosely bounded entity as a singular political and cultural Common.) It is/was a space wherein people moved, were displaced, resettled, goods, plants, and animals were traded, sometimes de-nativized from one space and made native to elsewhere. If we put Hofmeyr’s Indian Ocean alongside Gilroy’s Black Atlantic in some ways (Southern) Africa becomes The Common betwixt these two Commons, connecting them. In fact, we begin to have an interlinked set of cultural entities that perhaps can be understood as the South. I use cultural here in lieu of political or economic as provocation because it occurs to me that it is thinking of the South as cultural phenomenon that is most problematic for us. The histories of the parts of the Globe understood to comprise the South share similar trajectories of conquest, colonization, expropriation and finally political independence from colonial empires in the form of the nation-state. Often this shared grammar of political ‘modernity’ is countered by fiercely local assertions of cultural difference.

Articulating a methodology for comparing the function of power and ‘the political’, either colonial or national, through the paradigm of the Global South (or the Southern Hemisphere) seems far less problematic than doing so for exploring the cultural “entanglement”[1], which transgresses boundaries of the local (I think, we could easily substitute ‘authentic’ here for local). For example, the much cited instance of the Xhosa woman who wins the Eastern Cape pageant for Miss India South Africa because, according to the judges, she offers the best performance of “Indianness” and the riot that ensues.[2] Clearly, for the majority of the judges the contestants were to be judged based upon the authenticity of their representations of Indian culture, while for the audience it was also, perhaps more so, about the cultural (or racial) authenticity of the woman presenting that cultural representation. Is there something more than coincidental here regarding the gendered stakes of this kind of representation of the local? Partha Chatterjee’s suggestion in The Nation and Its Fragments that the site of the home, domesticity—the sphere of the woman—become the embodiment of the (Indian) nation during anti-colonial struggle may shed some light here on the crisis that thinking about the Southern Hemisphere as a cultural space engenders. While not wanting to essentialize Chatterjee’s argument to include all nations that comprise the South, I would like to suggest that perhaps the resistance to the South as a construct when taken on by cultural theorists, presumably to think about culture, is due to our acceptance of the notion of cultures as local, embodiments of particular domesticities somewhat sealed off from the ‘corrupting’ machinery of colonial states and deregulated global markets. The problem that Hofmeyr’s work necessarily introduces is “what comprises the local if not culture”?

This leads me to leave off with two central questions. First, though many scholars of literary and cultural studies seemed to ask this in varying ways over the course of the workshop, what is the role of literary and cultural studies in understanding the South and theorizing from it? Secondly, but related, what are the limits of the South as a theoretical paradigm by which we can understand and make possible an ethics of mutuality?

Victoria J. Collis-Buthelezi

[1] Sarah Nuttall develops and explores her theory of entanglement in Entanglement: Literary and cultural reflections on post-apartheid. Entanglement, Nuttall writes, “is a term which may gesture toward a relationship or set of social relationships that is complicated, ensnaring, in a tangle, but which also implies a human foldness”, in contraindication to the human apartness that was/is apartheid (1). Thus, it may entail similar processes of inter-cultural and interracial mixing as creolization and mestissaje but accounts for these in contexts (such as the South African toward which Nuttall develops this concept almost exclusively in her book) in which they are more opaque and resisted or denied by hegemonic narratives of belonging to such contexts.

[2] Both Eric Worby and Sarah Nuttall made reference to this incident during their respective sessions.