Saturday, September 18, 2010

Faking it: Design as Re-making

Ackbar Abbas (with Pamila Gupta)

Ackbar Abbas started out his lecture on “History in the Faking” by acknowledging his debt to a borrowed pair of scissors “without which this talk would not have been possible.” Indeed, a closer look at his notes revealed a Frankensteinian mishmash of segments from typed notes interweaved with handwritten interjections. The next day at breakfast I came across a folder containing the rejected remnants of earlier notes, holes marking the passages Abbas found particularly relevant to our workshop. I wished I could look at the remainders more closely, perhaps try to figure out why they were rejected, but I already felt like I was snooping.

Maybe Abbas would have been sympathetic to my snooping – after all, in a masterful closing argument delivered during the workshop’s concluding he returned to the title of the lecture on the previous day, Wreckages of Utopia, urging us to reexamine the ruins, claiming that one can only see Utopia in the wreckages. Using Walter Benjamin’s conception of the ruin, he suggested that one can ‘pick up and pick out fragments of a Messianic time, embedded like broken glass in the ruins’ (my approximate paraphrase) – the key is not to turn to the ruins either in a spirit of traumatic repetition or nostalgic return.

The question of how one should view these wreckages returns us to the key word in Abbas’s earlier lecture – design. Critique, he argues, has lost its efficacy – when critique is everywhere, it is also nowhere. Instead of critique or theory, he urges one to design. Design, in this argument (which I do not purport to follow perfectly), is to make something from conditions buried underground – returning us to the wreckages or ruins. The starting point of design is thus not having an idea of what a good design would look like (in fact, Abbas is invested in ‘poor’ design, which he stresses is not the same as bad design), but rather, addressing that which is confusing or unanswerable. ‘The South,’ as we have been thinking about it, provides a rich ground for design because it is the space where the anomalies of contemporary society (call it global capitalism or late capitalism or the information age, whichever you choose) become most clearly visible in the juxtapositions between the most advanced and most basic forms which coexist there. As Abbas reminds us, the marginal can no longer safely be dismissed to the margins.

For example: fakes. Abbas uses the proliferation of fakes (handbags, watches, etc.), particularly as made in China, as the focal point of his lecture. Fakes are, he says, a ‘hysterical symptom’ of capital – I believe one can also see them as the pieces of broken glass in the ruins, bearing a disconnected resemblance (like allegory in Benjamin) to that which they purport to reflect. Illustrating his argument with a reference to Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, he says that, just as in this work there are two perspectives at work, the conventional and the anamorphic (the painting contains a stretched-out skull which only becomes decipherable if one views the painting from the side, at which point the rest of the painting becomes blurred), fakes illustrate that the space of the market economy also contains multiple incompatible frameworks which are not visible from the same perspective, even though they are ‘right in front of you.’ The purpose of design, then, would be to make these frameworks visible.

Design, thus, is a remaking. Abbas references J.L. Borges’s Pierre Menard as the model. In this short story, Menard painstakingly ‘recreates’ or ‘remakes’ “the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two” (Borges, Labyrinths, p. 39. Translated by James E. Irwin). This is not a fake: “Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes” (ibid.). Menard has not copied the Quixote, but remade it. In Abbas’s formulation, the faker copies, but the artist falsifies. It is in this spirit that one can approach the wreckages or ruins: a spirit which is creative, not imitative.

I realize I have probably not done a very good job of relaying Abbas’s argument, nor was that really the point of this blog post. What I was trying to do was anchor his talk in our shared concern of how to think from the South. The fear Abbas addresses, I would say, is that the South is doomed to repetition, to belatedness, to imitation, while innovation happens elsewhere. He makes it clear that this is not the case – that it is from the South, and perhaps only from the South, that we can start thinking the present. Belatedness, being in the wrong time or the wrong place, becomes the basis for a liberatory politics.

Nienke Boer

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

When is a shoe no longer a shoe?

Noam Yuran at JWTC
‘What is Money?’ This was the title of the one of the last seminar sessions of this year’s JWTC Workshop, presented by Noam Yuran. Ah, money: so immediately personal, so globally pertinent. Each of us was bound to be hooked by the topic. Yet what difference does it make who asks that question and where and when it is being asked? What does it mean, for example, to ask ‘what is money’ in a context of wealth and high-end consumption, or in truly precarious times and places – and what might be the relationship between these?

Ask an ordinary Zimbabwean in Zimbabwe this question these days (if indeed anyone who has survived the past decade there could be called ordinary) and she or he would probably laugh or grimace or both, but anyway have countless ways of talking about how one goes about finding it, keeping it, using it, losing it. Everyone would have a take on those who have it, don’t have it, hoard it, share it, convert it, divert it.

In the worst period of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe, which reached its unimagineable, world-historical peak of trillions of percent in late 2008 – before the ‘Zimbabwe dollar’ was officially cancelled and replaced with the Real Dollar (USD and other exchangeable foreign currencies) – there would be endless tales, or advice, on how and where one might access cash itself (which was a near-impossible feat for many), or how one might carry or count it. People would literally queue outside banks for days waiting to cash their salary cheques or simply draw out enough to pay for food or school fees. And as they waited, either outside banks or in queues for just about anything, their money literally disappeared since the actual bank notes (not Zimbabwe dollars as such but what the Reserve Bank denoted as ‘bearer cheques’) lost value almost at the speed of light. In a recently published novel, The Hairdresser of Harare (Weaver Press, 2010), in the course of making a surreptitious payment for a few kilos of ‘illicitly’ bought sugar from behind the back of a supermarket, the narrator recounts: “[Lucy] took the brick-like bundle of cash I had and stuffed it into her own large handbag. She did not need to count it. We can tell the value of money by its weight. It wouldn’t even matter if it was a few hundred thousand short anyway, the way its value was falling by the hour.”

So when Noam was poised to address the question, ‘What is Money?’, this paradox of the weight and weightlessness of money in contemporary Zimbabwe was partly what I had at the back of my mind as context. At the same time, knowing that Noam came from a very different historical-spatial reality and disciplinary milieu, I was intrigued by what his thinking, and the collective engagement this would evoke in the seminar, would bring to my own struggles to understand the changing value, exchangeability, modes of exchange and multiple meanings of money in times of both dramatic and sustained crisis and displacement. That specific interest aside, here was something both at the very core of the notion of ‘capital’, and basic to most people’s everyday lives and futures. Noam’s aim was to somehow unsettle the assumed universality – and economism – of much thinking about money; to turn the familiar strange, or at least provoke us to ‘rethink money through desire’, as part of a broader project of exploring ‘the object as the medium of the history of the subject’.

In Noam’s broad framing, money is no longer a means to an end (as asserted in orthodox economics), but rather ‘has become the ultimate end’. Money, he argued, is no longer distinct from commodities but is itself a commodity, to be accumulated for its own sake: much like a brand, whose value-added extends beyond its mere utility value. In this lies a sense of money’s indefinite desire, which Noam linked partly to ‘the nature of money itself’. With regard to his definition of desire, he said he rejected a psychological reading of the notion of desire, allying himself with Zizek in proposing that part of our subjectivity is imbued with objects. He further suggested that ‘that money itself wants to grow’. This latter idea was challenged by a number of commentators in the seminar for its disconnect from the social. In response, Noam asserted that the impossibility of the fulfillment of desire is what made it social.

The identity (or symbolic value) of an object, or brand, he continued, is linked to the way it is desired. The images or symbols of the brand are not mere symbols, but become part of the thing itself. At the same time, an object or brand’s worth is in its uniqueness, its UN-exchangeability. This is not an entirely new phenomenon Noam noted, giving the historical example of the leisured classes learning Latin at a time when it no longer had any utility value, but had social-symbolic value. In a more contemporary vein, he proposed that ‘when a kid asks for a Nike shoe, he [sic] wants the symbol itself’. In this scenario, ‘a shoe is no longer a shoe’.

This last phrase turned out to be particularly provocative. Of course a shoe IS still a shoe for those too poor to afford even a basic pair, several people noted. Yet it was among several points that generated animated responses (and even some degree of animosity) from seminar participants. My own unvoiced question at the time was, ‘where and when would such a phrase have purchase? (no pun intended). Others vocalized a range of challenging questions that took on different aspects of the broad arguments presented. These are not reported here comprehensively or verbatim (with some exceptions), but rather in loose translation through my own reading of what was at stake:

In what historical, spatial, social, economic, political and cultural context has this overall theoretical formulation emerged? What is its analytical reach and relevance? What does it take for granted, and what are its blind spots? What are its implications for whom? Where is ‘the social’ in this approach? Where and how do material and institutional realities fit in this perspective? How does it help us understand how politics and economics affect social relations of power? Where does money fit into a revolution? Can we talk about ‘Capitalism’ (or ‘late Capitalism’) as a universal phenomenon with overarching trends, even with so much spatial/social diversity in its global and local manifestations? What is the distinction (and/or relationship) between an economics of need and an economics of desire? Can one separate desire from need in such an abstracted way?

Many of the questions posed by participants reflected not only different disciplinary or theoretical perspectives from Noam’s explicitly philosophical (and Northern) one, but some also came from an overtly normative position linked to an impassioned politics around issues of poverty and exclusion. In this sense, the seminar provoked valuable reflections at the core of JWTC’s overarching project: namely, what does it mean to think and theorise ‘from the South’. It would be interesting to trace the diverse results that might emerge if each of us was to pursue (empirically and theoretically) this same question – what is money? – in a range of contexts. What would our own answers be?

On a more personal note, this seminar fuelled my curiosity and concern – as did so much of the workshop – about why and how we ask the questions we ask. How questions are conceptualised, where and when and by whom, has profound consequences for our ways of seeing, methods of investigation and modes of representation. It affects the visibility and legitimacy of certain experiences and the political space for particular struggles. It also implicates us, as knowledge producers, in the ways the world is constructed. This forces me to keep asking myself what kind of scholar I want to be.

Amanda Hammar
Centre of African Studies, Copenhagen University

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Reckoning (with) Wreckages

Sarah Nuttall and Isabel Hofmeyr
In the final studio session of the 2010 JWTC on Tuesday afternoon, “Wreckages of Utopia,” Isabel Hofmeyr, Louise Bethlehem, and Sarah Nuttall invited us to consider new ways of learning from, living in, and even laughing at the “wrecked” spaces of violent (colonial, imperial, and/or religio-nationalist) utopian projects. Each of the panelists reckoned with the past, present, and/or future of certain wreckages, and taken together their comments occasioned, for me, a reflection on the complex, contradictory, and contested temporalities involved in reading the spaces of what we have been referring to as the Global South, as well as on the nature of the intellectual’s relationship/response to these complex temporalities.

Isabel Hofmeyr began the session by framing the spaces of the Global South as sites of “social experiment” (echoing, though with a slightly different emphasis, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff’s earlier articulation of colonies as sites of experimentation for global capital) that are left to deal with the permanent fallout of others’ utopian schemes once the experiments have failed/been defeated and their (colonial, imperial) agents have withdrawn. The spaces of the Global South, she suggested, are the spaces where the archives of these wrecked social experiments are most dense and painful. How, methodologically, Hofmeyr asked, do we deal with these archives? While the dominant response has been to focus on the axis of anti-colonial resistance, Hofmeyr underlined the potential of new or neglected cultural forms and registers: satire, parody, irony; bizarreness and juxtaposition; slapstick and crass comedy; attempts to “recycle the wreckage.” She concluded her comments, however, with a brief description of her own
research into a very different genre, an example of what she labels “South-South Gothic”: the search for a cenotaph marking the resting place of Boer prisoners of war detained in the Punjab during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. This memorial, she suggests, is “haunted with contradictions that address multiple pasts and presents.”

For South Africans, Hofmeyr writes, “reading a roll of Afrikaans names (De Jager, Van der Merwe, Cronje, Fourie, Pienaar) in the Punjab (present day Haryana) is bizarre, estranging and nostalgic.” While in public discourse the Anglo-Boer War had been a “yawn-worthy staple in the school syllabus, part of the arsenal of Afrikaner nationalism,” it nevertheless “haunted private spaces,” and here Hofmeyr recalls the war stories told by her maternal grandmother, which “emerged at odd and unpredictable moments, bizarre and jagged shards whose repetition could never smooth their violent edges.” “To read the Boer names in Ambala Cantonment,” Hofmeyr suggests, was thus to “revisit these semi-forgotten private and public histories from a radically different angle.” Borrowing from Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia, Hofmeyr reads the cenotaph as the “beginnings of an unintentional memorial,” unintentional memorials being about “uncertainty, the unpredictability of change, unexpected juxtapositions, and colliding time schemes.” Thus while in India the graves of Boer prisoners of war have become “ruins on the border of recorded time, passing into an archive of opaque ancientness severed from the present,” the visit by Hofmeyr and her fellow researchers “re-inaugurated them into the present, even if only briefly.” The histories opened up by research into such (“obscure, off-centre”) “lateral linkages” across the spaces of the Global South, Hofmeyr writes, are “discordant, unpredictable, quirky,” but they nevertheless offer a perspective from which to “configure the shards and wreckages of many pasts.” In the ruins of St. Paul’s Church in Ambala – ruins of “more recent provenance,” Hofmeyr notes, a casualty of the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 – British imperialism, anti-colonialism, Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid “become embedded in a landscape shaped by Partition, the Cold War and their consequences.” None of these histories, Hofmeyr insists, are over; instead, their “spectral after-effects continue to accumulate in different parts of the world.” In her comments on Tuesday, Hofmeyr described herself as “the fallout of aspirations for Afro-Asian solidarity,” and in this project she sets out to reckon (multiple senses: she is giving an account of, but also still counting, still calculating) the historical wreckages that continue to accumulate across the spaces of the Global South.

In her comments, Louise Bethlehem offered us two optics, two windows onto another wreckage. She began with a reflection on her own (potential, imagined) movement through the spaces of the “fortress of learning” that she inhabits, a “structure knowingly turned in upon itself”: the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Turned in upon itself, that is, with one exception, an exceptional space that Bethlehem has never thought to enter (and would never, as a woman, be able to enter “simply at will”): the Hecht Synagogue, which opens out onto a panoramic view of the Temple Mount and, in the words of its architect, Ram Karmi, is “at the apex of the faculty’s internal movement and orientation.” Bethlehem asked us to use this window “as a way into the spatial and mnemonic regimes of Israel/Palestine,” a space in which the law of “spatial sovereignty” very forcefully manifests itself. Bethlehem, however, endeavored to “decipher the synagogue window against its own transparency and in favor of the detritus of memory that it occludes,” insisting on reading the material referent itself, the Temple Mount, as “reconstituted through the apparatus of ideological reinscription by the Zionist narrative as Har Habayit, in opposition to Haram-ash-Sharif: the site of al-Aqsa.” This reinscription, Bethlehem suggested, whether nostalgic or messianic/millennial, is the “aftereffect of both spatial and epistemological violence.” Thus while the eye “surveys an inhabited landscape, saturated with the evidence of rival cultural, religious and national claims,” the “visionary gaze of the ideologically interpellated worshipper in the present-day synagogue is uncannily close to the injunction of the founding Zionist forefathers,” who imagined the university as a “Third Temple” of science and a “necessary accessory” to the Jewish national revolution. The gaze, Bethlehem continued, is “momentarily split” between its “emplacement in space” and the “phantasmatic space of possession it extends across the valley, denuding the lived space of the Old City of its historicity, of its being-inhabited.”

To counteract a gaze that registers only the “phantasmatic space of possession,” Bethlehem turned to a different optic, a unique window onto the destruction of Gaza. She discussed “
Postcards for Gaza,” a 2009 exhibit curated by Norma Musih for the dissident organization Zochrot, in which Israeli artists responded to a series of photographs by the Palestinian artist Shareef Sarhan documenting the destruction of Gaza, producing a proliferation of postcards in the gallery space. “What repertoires of resistance, witness and dissent,” Bethlehem asked, “may be extrapolated from this relay?” She entertained two interpretive models for appraising the dissent offered: the first, a “referential politics of witness,” she argued, forecloses the “political desire” of the recirculation, restricting it to “reiteration.” The second model, however, moves from referentiality to affect, and allows for a reading of the recirculation of Sarhan’s images as “an attempt to extract the photograph from an adjudication of the political constrained by the fetishization of mimesis, so as to restore the photograph to its status as fetish – tout court.” Bethlehem elaborated, drawing on the work of William Pietz: “Although the fetish partakes of an irreducible materiality, a materiality as intractable as the wreckage Sarhan photographs, it does not merely resignify material components.” Rather, “it articulates relations between the material, on the one hand, and the structures of desire, belief, affect and narrative in which materiality is embedded, on the other.” Pietz enables Bethlehem to “draw on the notion of transvaluation between cultures” in order to read the transformations of Sarhan’s photographs as “more than simply derivative of a primary mimesis belonging to another,” more than “mere evidence of the colonizer’s narcissism.” Bethlehem then suggested that the “ambivalent production of aesthetic value and symbolic capital as lines inscribed between the lines of wreckage on the part of Israeli artists might profitably be considered as the symptom of a Nachträglichkeit (the Freudian ‘deferred effect’ of anterior trauma) that reinscribes the originary production of value by the Zionist state brought into being through the founding violence of dispossession that is the Palestinian nakba.” In other words, it is “dissidence wrecked in advance by the violence of a utopianism which predates it.” Wrecked in advance, but Bethlehem also emphasized that the project “translates the longue durée of the nakba into a vernacular idiom, a visual repertoire, that constructs fairly radical emplacements for Israeli Jews who consent to participate in Zochrot’s dissident project of counter-memory.”

Bethlehem concluded with a few brief comments on Zochrot itself: the organization (its name translates loosely as “remembering,” but is derived from the plural feminine form of the verb in order to contest the masculinist bias of conventional historical accounts) seeks to raise awareness of the nakba in defiance of the work of a “willed Zionist amnesia,” and attempts to “re-inscribe the memory of pre-1948 Palestinian life on the face of the Israeli landscape from which it has been erased.” Zochrot’s “mnemonic activism” also seeks to crack (לסדוק) “the fortress of that other bastion of Zionist utopianism: the Hebrew language itself.” Its journal is titled Sedek, or “fissure,” and the Zochrot website makes clear that its aim is to “speak the Nakba in Hebrew and in so doing to change the Hebrew language,” “to make it into a language that contains the Nakba (in Arabic), into a language that contains a fissure.” Bethlehem noted that sedek also “preserves echoes of a not-quite homophone: צדק [tzedek] – that is to say, justice,” an echo that she described as “linguistic subversion” present as “willed différance” in the journal’s title. In its “resolute production of discourse, in Hebrew, but also in Arabic and English,” Bethlehem concluded, “Zochrot stages an ongoing allegorical performance of a differently inflected Israeli identity.” We could also understand Bethlehem’s own presentation as such a speaking otherwise: not merely a report on a relay, more than simply descriptive or derivative of (reproductions of) a primary mimesis belonging to another, her comments can perhaps be read as dissidence wrecked in advance, yes, but also with the knowledge that, as in Bethlehem’s own words, the “mis-en-abîme of appropriation does not vitiate the gesture of solidarity” with a project committed to a politics of counter-memory. Each iteration does its own work of reckoning.

If Hofmeyr asks us to think about the ever-accumulating “spectral after-effects” of historical wreckages, to think wreckages as archives, and if Bethlehem insists on the historicity (and inhabited-ness) of the Old City as (a gesture of solidarity with) a politics unfolding in the present, Sarah Nuttall’s comments shifted our attention to the future, and to the future of Johannesburg in particular. She provocatively declared herself to be “quite glad” that utopia has been wrecked, even as she remains interested in the “question of the future” (a provocation that I read as particularly striking given her own earlier acknowledgment, in the introduction to Entanglement, of “the need for a utopian horizon”). Nuttall spoke about “winning the right to address the future,” and about the possibility that “inventing the future” might itself come to be seen as a kind of “critical practice.” Picking up on themes that she has addressed in Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-Apartheid (2009), Nuttall pushed at the limits of a politics of difference – even proposing, again provocatively, to add postcolonial theory itself to the pile of wreckages – and shifted our attention to the idea of desegregation, as a way to think about living in Johannesburg, about making Johannesburg habitable, and, as she argues in Entanglement, as a counterpoint to “a long history, as well as contemporary formations, of suffering based on a distorted universalism and therefore an insulting invocation and enforcement of difference.” In fact, while I have emphasized Nuttall’s focus on the future, there is a more complex approach to temporality at play in her analysis: in the conclusion to Entanglement, she proposes that we leave behind the teleology of “post-apartheid” in favor of a “different theory of social time,” one that acknowledges the simultaneous existence of modes of “nostalgia and melancholy, of inertia and stasis”; modes of “presentism” (which lack a sense of the future); and modes of “invention.” Johannesburg, Nuttall argues, is a city “made up of simultaneity, speed, rapid alternations, and striking levels of mutability and change,” and it thus requires new conceptual categories that “embrace social velocity, the power of the unforeseen and unfolding, and a concept of the social as experiment and artifice versus order and contract.”

These thoughts lead me, finally, to some reflections on the nature of the intellectual’s response to these complex temporalities. In the final pages of Entanglement, Nuttall argues for a “politics of the emergent in South Africa” that “attempts to undercut a theoretical stance of resistance to the present at all costs.” Rejecting models of (Foucauldian) “renunciation” as well as (Adornian) “defamiliarisation,” she instead looks for the “potential, both latent and surfacing, for imminent change.” Where Foucault conceived of “imagining another system” as a “way of occupying the present,” Nuttall instead seeks to “[find] ways within the present system – a new democratic order – for dismantling the past and protecting the future.” I find Nuttall’s account to be both provocative and productive, but I also want to juxtapose it with another recent account of the intellectual’s relation to temporality, that developed by Mark Sanders in the epilogue to Ambiguities of Witnessing: Law and Literature in the Time of a Truth Commission (2007). Sanders describes the “risk of interpreting what is happening in the light of what has come and gone” – the intellectual’s unavoidable “transaction with time” – but also emphasizes that he does so “with a view to a future.” Citing J.M. Coetzee’s essay “Critic and Citizen: A Response,” Sanders proposes that it is possible to “think responsibility in terms of the alterity of time,” the intellectual “introduc[ing] another temporality, counter to the time of an event, to the time appropriated by an event.” The intellectual, Sanders suggests, “strives to bring the current event before what has come and gone, and endeavors to find ways of opening it to futurity.” Sanders writes that he is instructed by Derrida’s Specters of Marx, and indeed both Hofmeyr’s (hauntings, spectral after-effects) and Bethlehem’s (aftereffect[s] of spatial and epistemological violence, phantasmatic spaces) comments invite us to think of the intellectual’s task as, in Derrida’s phrase, a “learn[ing] to live with ghosts.” “No being-with the other,” Derrida writes, “no socius without this with that makes being-with in general more enigmatic than ever for us” (and Nuttall, too, is particularly interested in the question of being-with, of a conviviality haunted by the specters of race and racism). “No justice,” Derrida continues, “seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppressions of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism.” Without this “non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present,” Derrida asks, “what sense would there be to ask the question ‘where?’ ‘where tomorrow?’ ‘whither?’” Part of being an intellectual, in other words, is reckoning with the fact that time is always out of joint (Hamlet’s phrase, to which Derrida points us); that is what, each in her own way, all three of the panelists were telling us as they reckoned (with) the wreckages of utopias.

Joseph Napolitano

Thursday, August 19, 2010

No Boer, No Future/ No Farmer/ No Future/ what loss?

Ben Cousins and Eric Worby

As Ben Cousins laid out for us in his presentation, land reform is at the nexus of a number of important concerns: apartheid redress, redistribution of wealth, the question of bounded territory, the understanding of our relation to time, and the need to create sustainable modes of food provision. In addressing land reform, we are dealing, then, with the complexities of multiple understandings of property rights, and, indeed, of property, of community and of history and the future in relation to power and to what we might refer to as everyday experience. However, the complexity notwithstanding, he reminds us that there is the need for urgent action, and with this a realization that we are, as he puts it, “grappling with the difficult present, rather than a simple version of the past or the future”.

“Sometimes,” he says, “brutal simplification is the only feasible response”. My response is one that pushes on the notion of simplicity, and perhaps this is its failure. However, since my work deals with notions of temporality and a sense of being a group among white Afrikaners, rather than with land reform in particular, the issues I am best placed to speak to are exactly the dreamworlds that land evokes, rather than the precise mode of reparation. However, since reparation – what is at the heart of land reform – is in itself, as Cousins states, a kind of dreamworld, I present this as an addendum to his discussion, rather than as a challenge or a series of questions. Cousins acknowledges the importance of the symbolic value of land in land reform, but emphasizes the economic materiality of land in most of his discussion. I cannot speak to the valency of land for those who are seeking to acquire land through the land reform process, or even to the valency of land for those who sell it in support of the land reform process. I will speak to narratives of material and symbolic value of land, in the broadest terms, in how Afrikaner volk is being constituted post-apartheid. The material value of land is located in the sensory experience of working the land, and the symbolic in the historic resonance of being a farmer. In this narrative, economic value is occluded. I will suggest briefly at the end that we can think about this using Noam Yuran’s analytic of a constitutive relation between material and symbol in money.

About two years ago I visited the museum at the Heritage Center at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. The museum presents a history of Afrikaner presence in South Africa. In the museum visitor’s book one of the visitors had written: ‘It is places like these that stop me from leaving the country: No boer, no future’. This seems like such a simple statement: ‘No farmer, no future’. However, the word ‘boer’ can, of course, not be translated simply as ‘farmer’. It is a word that has come to be associated with rightwing racist politics – most notably in the way the repressive apartheid police were referred to as ‘boere’. So, read with this connotation, and in the context of the statement that it is places like the Heritage Museum that stop the writer ‘giving up’ on South Africa, ‘no boer, no future’ means that there is no future for the country without the boere? This sounds a bit threatening, but it is also more complicated. Specifically, we see here a particular set of temporalities invoked, in which the political significance shifts and in which the sacral is evoked.

Some short time after the Dutch East India Company set up a refueling station at the southern tip of the African continent in the 17th century some of the company employees formally left the employ of the company to farm and sell their produce to the Company: they were called vrijburgers or free citizens. Bibow, one of this group, we are told, is the first person to have coined the term ‘Afrikaner’, when he shouted ‘Ik bin ein Afrikander’ in rebellion against Company rule. What he shouts is, in one sense, ‘I am an Afrikaner’ – and this is how the story is usually told – but in another sense what he shouts is ‘I am an African’. Here we have the first complication in understanding how ‘no boer, no future’ makes sense: although its reference now is primarily to a rightwing politics of land as well as of race, it is a referent that resonates with a notion of being African. The resonance of particular concepts is important for my reasoning here because this is an important mode of meaning-making in Afrikaans volk history and in Afrikaans political positioning in the present. This sense of being a farmer, is opposed, then, to being a company employee and opposed to being a European, and contains a sense of being a stateless citizen. The next resonance is of ‘boer’ as citizen of the Boer republics.

In the mid-19th century, groups of Afrikaners and their slaves and servants travel North of what becomes the British Cape Colony, to establish what are referred to as the ‘Boer’ republics (the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and the Oranje Vrijstaat). This time when Boer means citizen is shortlived – the republics never quite function as states in the way we understand states to function now, were never entirely autonomous in the way we expect states to be now, and, further, faced constant challenge from citizens we might now describe as ‘libertarian’. The states were attacked by the British Empire at the turn of the 19th century, and the Boers or the Afrikaners came under British rule by 1905. Kitchener’s scorched earth strategy, in which farms and lands were burnt in order to flush out guerilla soldiers and leave them no support network, are remembered with as much horror as the concentration camps in which farm women and children and farm labourers were held under brutal conditions.

So, when we read ‘no boer’, it is a statement about a certain politics, the claim to a certain history, to a certain sense of persecution, and, of course, identity that is complicated to place politically, in the way we generally define politics now. This is especially true since the early Boer republics were motivated, as the story is told, in part by a sense of religious volk destiny – a point I will not go into here. So, we see ‘boer’ as resonating with this particular historical sense of oppositional identity-formation, shifting as it signifies a certain kind of belonging in Southern Africa that is similar but not quite a notion of citizenship. The word also resonates, historically, with seeking to occupy a particular economic place. But it is also about the experience of farming.

The museum I mentioned earlier features a display of a pair of ‘farmer’s’ hands filled with earth, with some lines of a poem superimposed on the hands. The hands are male and white, and while the skin has a rougher texture than perhaps we might expect of an intellectual, they still seem somewhat refined – nails neatly cut and no obvious callouses. Notwithstanding these signals of a kind of gentility, and the ability to employ labourers, the image emphasizes a certain embodied experience, that is hands-on, as it were, and which recalls the feeling of soil in the hands. It is an image that suggests sowing, and is not unlike images of Christ’s hands that are common in more old-fashioned Afrikaans homes: briefly, I would read the image as evoking fertility, the sacred nature of farming, presenting this a kind of depoliticized sensuality, in a nostalgic mode. It should be pointed out that farming is in the distant past for most Afrikaners, although most families know the name of what used to be their family farm and it is a site of nostalgic recollection that belies what they also know: that farming is arduous and difficult to make a financial success of. Knowing this, the claim laid on farming, and on being a boer, is a claim to a certain mythos of volk as well as, and sometimes instead of, a claim to actual land.

It is on these grounds, the grounds of experience, history and the sensual, that the political nature of being a landed farmer are evoked in popular narrations of these experiences. Speaking against a kind of commonsense notion of being ‘one’ with the land, and with identity being caught up in this sacral process, are accounts like Antjie Krog’s, in A Change of Tongue, and in Marlene Van Niekerk’s Agaat. These accounts depict farms and farming as fraught with sometimes quite brutal racial and gender politics. In this additional resonance, the nostalgic temporality of farming is one that is fraught with taints of brutality, recalled with difficulty in the public sphere but not absent. Indeed, if only in reference to a history of settler struggle, the possibility of violence is one that is an uneasy presence in the phrase ‘no boer, no future’. As Cousins points out, the specter of violent land reclamations in Zimbabwe haunt visions of the future of South African land reform: this is a future to be avoided.

It remains to discuss the significance of ‘no future’. As Ben Cousins pointed out, the stakes in land reform are exactly of different kinds of futures – he points out that this is what drives the process but that this is also what makes it problematic. Given the urgency of the need for reform, he says, we cannot pause too long to consider all the best possible futures, disregarding the need to take action, albeit imperfect.

The word ‘future’ in Afrikaans is ‘toekoms,’ which can be transliterated as ‘then-arrival’. It resonates with the words ‘herkoms’, which can be transliterated as ‘arriving-again’ and means origin, and ‘heenkoms,’ which can be transliterated as ‘where-arriving’ and also means origin. ‘Origin’, here, is both literal and metaphysical, and points us to the ways in which ‘future’, here, is both a literal and a metaphysical place, a metaphysical destination that connotes material space. The future is, then, in some senses a land, a landedness, a promised land. Indeed, this is how we often understand it. We should note though that this way of thinking suggests that there is a predetermined place to arrive at: this means that the loss of land creates a crisis of temporality, in the sense that there is no clear place to arrive at. For a volk whose mythos refers to a series of exoduses, this is not a new state of affairs, indeed, it engenders a sense of volk even as it seems to disallow it. However, in a mythos in which the future is a kind of predetermined place, the loss of that place also calls the past, and the nature of history itself, into question (drawing here on Rachel Fulton’s discussion of medieval apocalyptic thinking).

What I have sketched above is a problematic of materiality and symbolism that leaves out the economic. Representations of Afrikaner history, reiterated in service of a reformulation of nationhood, suggest that the material is at the service of the symbolic, even as the material is emphasized: so a narrative might go as follows ‘we are losing our land which is symbolic of our identity and our future, but the symbol we lose is also material in that we lose our literal connection with the land and physical spaces that are important to us as a family and as a people’. This is not an uncommon way for people to describe the process of losing land (and I draw here on the stories related in Cherryl Walker’s Landmarked), but the problem of how to account for the economic materiality of land remains. In the nostalgic regard for the past, and even in the regard for the sensual experience of farming, and in a vision of the future, we seem very far from the rands and cents that we know are part of the picture. We might ask, cynically, ‘yes, but what about the ways in which land is a commodity now? What about the financial gain that land might represent? Or the financial loss that land means?’ or, even more simply, ‘where is class in this?’ I see this problematic as emblematic of much local discussion about apartheid reparation: it is rare in public discourse to see a reconciliation of the spheres of affective, spiritual or historical loss and gain and the spheres of gain and loss in terms of hard cash, assets or investment futures and the shifts in class that such changes might represent. (So, for instance, Deborah Posel tries to make sense of Smuts Nkonyama’s statement ‘I did not fight in the struggle to be poor’ in terms of a racial economy that was always about consumption, rather than more ‘purely’ about ideals of metaphysical emancipation.)

In an effort to suggest some resolution to the problematic I have sketched out here, I will attempt a short-cut to a theoretical possibility, via Noam Yuran’s discussion of money as symbolic matter or material symbol: we could consider land as material symbol, in which, according to Noam’s analytic, land’s materiality is concealed in its symbolic value. In the politics of reconstituting Afrikaner volk, concealing land’s materiality in its symbolic value (or certain aspects of its materiality) obscures financial gain and loss in land reform in favor of regarding its symbolic value as part of a mythos of volk. However, this tendency can, again using Noam’s analytic, be considered as a definitive aspect of neoliberal economy, and not specific to a racist politics. Indeed, presenting land as primarily symbolic (even in its sensual aspect) lends itself equally well to a narrative in which selling land in support of land reform is a sacrificial act, beyond the mere rands and cents of the transaction. The occlusion, specifically, of monetary value in narratives of political persecution or redemption, I would venture, speaks to the separation of what we consider to be matters of finance from what we consider to be matters of politics: a dangerous occlusion if we consider the challenges that neoliberal economy poses to nation-state governance (exactly the kind of governance that makes land reform possible).

Kathleen McDougall

Monday, August 9, 2010

Playing The Racial Card: The Politics Of Race In America Today

David Theo Goldberg
Many thought, perhaps over-optimistically, that Barack Obama’s election to the US Presidency would signal that racism was now an historical relic in America. The Shirley Sherrod case makes palpably evident, however, a profound shift that has materialized in the politics of race in America since the 1980s. Sherrod, a government official, was excoriated by right-wing pundits for appearing in a pubic address to be endorsing discrimination against white farmers and privileging black farmers in government provision of aid. Within a few days of publication of her views, she was forced out of her job.

Politically active conservatives, overwhelmingly white, have seized on any racial reference by more liberal political figures to charge that the latter are perpetuating racism. Institutional racism is deemed mere anomaly rather than any longer a structural condition. When occurring at all, it is supposedly the expression of wrongheaded individuals. Conservative insistence on a literal colorblindness has undercut any attempts to invoke racial considerations to redress the negative effects of past discrimination.

As a consequence, racism has become less the social exclusion and humiliation of those taken to be racially different than invocation of or reference to race for social and especially governmental purpose. Any political or governmental invocation of race, for conservatives, amounts to racism, especially if designed to produce ameliorative or corrective outcomes in response to the pernicious burdens of past or continuing racisms.

More liberal proponents, by contrast, at least implicitly insist on a distinction between invoking race and expressions of racism. Underlying this distinction is the sense that to address the more pernicious and continuing legacy of racism requires racial identification of those continuing to suffer discrimination. After all, there is compelling evidence that especially African Americans, Latinos, Muslim Americans but also to some degree Asian Americans continue to face discriminatory conditions today, most notably in employment, housing access in renting and mortgages, and loans for large order purchases like automobiles, even after disaggregating for wealth and income differentials. To document such discrimination requires racial reference.

These differences regarding race and racism have been exacerbated since Obama’s election. Conservative white commentators have latched on to the use of racial expression by liberal or progressive politicians to charge racism. When President Obama chided Cambridge, Massachussets police for acting too quickly in the Henry Louis Gates arrest he was quickly accused of favoring a black man because black, and accused of racism. When National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) President Benjamin Jealous recently appealed to the Tea Party leaders to disown racist individuals in the movement, he was summarily denounced as racist for even raising the possibility. And when radical conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart released part of a videotape showing State of Georgia Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, recounting that she had once discriminated against white farmers in providing assistance to save their land, she was strongly condemned by conservatives and liberals alike, including the NCAAP’s Jealous.

Part of the conservative strategy has been to place liberal political figures on the defensive regarding race. They have sought to undercut any advantage liberals might gather by revealing ongoing evidence of racial discrimination. After all, if a black man has ascended to the highest political office in the country, what further racial barriers can there be? So the politics of race has turned to end what has been perceived as the advantages for liberals of a past politics of race. Race has always had a political register in America, and today is different only in the ring that register now assumes.

So what then the prevailing politics of race in America today?

Conservatives have sought to shift the grounds on which racial politics play out. They are not against any invocation of race, only against explicit racial reference to extend advantages especially to citizens who are not white. In part this has been done to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of so-called independent voters, largely considered white, that though they may have voted to elect Obama he really doesn’t represent their interests. And while only implicit, the innuendo is that he doesn’t represent their interests exactly on racially identified grounds. He is for affirmative action, which undercuts opportunities for them; he is for extending social benefits, which means higher taxes for them; he is for regulating small business, which means more difficult lives for them; and he is for illegal immigration—or against doing anything to stem it—which makes their lives less safe.

Shifting the point of racial emphasis—putting the racial boot on the other foot, so to speak--places liberals on the defensive regarding racial matters. The quickness with which Shirley Sherrod was forced to step down from her government job reveals just how effective the tactic has been. But even more disturbingly the shift has also licensed the possibility for conservative whites pretty much to say anything they want regarding race. They are not now in power, and take themselves literally to be in opposition, seeking to block all significant liberal-leaning legislation. Invoking race outside of governing, in civil society, even in opposition to government power, then, is fair game. Hence the proliferation of racist expression in the private sphere since President Obama was elected.

Examples abound: the pernicious images of the President that have pervaded protests and the internet (literally thousands and thousands of pernicious images, if you care to check, most of them with insinuating racist implication); the easy and steady invocation of the “n” word in public life (Mel Gibson not even the most recent, as evidenced by the resigning Mayor of Cobleskill, New York, who referred to Martin Luther King Day as “N . . . . . . Day” and as Obama’s CHANGE campaign as “Come Help and Get a N . . . . . . Get Elected Campaign;” the characterization by Sarah Palin’s father that she left Hawaii when a student there “because there were too many Asian Americans” living in the state; the accusation by conservative bloggers that the Obama family while vacationing in Maine visited an ice-cream parlor because its store window logo represented a black power fist holding a spoon; arguably the easiness with which conservative Republican Congressman Joe Wilson unprecedentedly shouted “You lie” at Obama on national television as he addressed a joint session of Congress on health care in September 2009; and so on.

The Sherrod case is unusual only for the apologies she received from conservatives after it was quickly revealed that the initial video release of her remarks had been edited to take the remarks completely out of context. Far from making a case for aiding black farmers while ignoring white farmers, she was showing how she had overcome these dispositons assumed twenty years ago and saw the need today to help all farmers in need, no matter their racial identity. Popular television pundit Bill O’Reilly was only the most prominent conservative to admit his too quick rush to judgment, joined as he was by President Obama and the offer of reinstatement to a promoted government job.

The disposition on the part of more radical conservative commentators to edit remarks by black liberals especially to evidence their criticism of supposedly inappropriate racial views is not new. Andrew Breitbart was invoking a tried practice at least a decade and a half old. Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism, published in 1995, is considered the bible of the new conservative position on race in America, as reflected in the very title. D’Souza’s book is replete with half-quoted sentences from black and progressive commentators on race, such as Derrick Bell, twisting their meaning to fit his thesis of generic black criminality, welfarism, and anti-sociality. D’Souza’s book is replete with half-quoted sentences from black and progressive commentators on race, twisting their meaning to fit his thesis. This perhaps is the intellectual analog of a twenty-year-old Republican political strategy. Recall the Willie Horton ad Lee Atwater unleashed to undo the Dukakis presidential campaign in 1988.

The Civil Rights Movement made the general public and politicians much more careful about easy use of racial epithets in civil society. The Reagan administration attack on affirmative action and on civil rights more generally eroded that carefulness, and the easy invocation of “n . . . . . “ as well as racial innuendo reappeared. We are witnessing today an extension, even a heightening of that trend.

Conservatives thus have figured out a partially effective politics of race that at once speaks to their principles, places liberals on the defensive, and not only gets conservatives off the racial hook for being soft on racism but enables them to set the terms of the racial debate. They can project themselves as crusaders for a colorblind America in the face of color conscious liberals.

This shift comes at a cost, though. In insisting that pernicious racist expressions are restricted to explicit invocations of race by public figures in their public function, they have licensed pervasive public expression of racist sentiment even of the crudest variety. It is revealing that very few public conservative figures have rushed to condemn the proliferation of explicitly racist expression by whites in civil society or by conservative politicians, or for that matter malicious editing of liberal racial reference to political ends.

Far from being a thing of the past, then, racism has become reanimated as a key instrument of American politics, only now to new purpose. That the notion of race can be so easily filled with new political purpose, alas, is basic to its chameleonic and politically instrumental nature. It requires particular critical attention and political commitment on all sides to face down.

There is a profound set of demographic shifts afoot in America today. At one end of the spectrum, America is aging, and 85 percent of the aging population is white. At the other end, there is a burgeoning young population, 45 percent of which are youth of color and projected to reach 50 percent within the next fifteen years. The aging white population increasingly is resistant to paying taxes, not least to fund education and welfare for the increasingly racially distinct youthful population. The less wealthy and less educated youthful population, by contrast, is ill placed to contribute to supporting the burgeoning health and retirement needs of the aging population.

The deepening racial bifurcation in the society serves only to exacerbate these divisions and tensions. Counter-critically, the aging white population needs an educated maturing population just as the youthful population would be well served by the support of the aging population of their education throughout school and college. Better educated people earn more, and pay a larger proportion of the social tax burden.

So, if there is a way out of the currently manipulated racial impasse it would be the recognition and political insistence on mutual need—ultimately to collective benefit. No political voices today have recognized this, for it requires trading short-term political benefits of racial manipulation for a coalitional politics prompted and sustained by courageous political leadership. The United States, and perhaps this is the case for contemporary late capitalist political economies more broadly, currently seem far away from that possibility.

By David Theo Goldberg

David Theo Goldberg directs the systemwide University of California Humanities Research Institute, and is Professor of Comparative Literature and Criminology, Law and Society at UC Irvine. He has written extensively on race and racism, most recently in The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Capital as Image

Achille Mbembe. Image by Aude Dieuda

It is under a clear blue sky that the champions arrive at Orlando Stadium. Situated on a hill overlooking a valley in the Soweto area of Johannesburg, the arena is spectacular, a place to see and be seen. This brisk, sunny morning is full of promise, and the arriving competitors are full of expectation. I am among them, and as we move through the tunnel toward a luxuriously fertile pitch, the stadium’s aisles yawn, its thousands of hungry chairs warming in early sunshine. We participants in the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism arrive early for the main event: Capital as Image, by Achille Mbembe. I shivered with anticipation; Mbembe is a distinguished scholar, famous for thrilling audiences with theoretical rigor and agility. On this particular morning, his supporters expect a hypnotizing performance.

The audience’s expectations are quickly fulfilled. But we also discover Mbembe’s hypnotism demands a willing engagement. Rather than passive delivery, this event was staged as “studio session,” a format that is deliberately tentative, tirelessly exploratory and resolutely fragmentary. Mbembe begins by explaining the rules of this serious game: there will be no attempt at systematicity, but goals may be achieved through hypothesis, proposition, and risk. I am already uncertain, but Mbembe raises the stakes further—he informs us that these calculated risks could lead nowhere—for the goal is not to pin down the proposition, but to circle around it. Mbembe is running in the direction of Walter Benjamin’s theses, and suddenly there is a flash that places us all in a moment of danger.

Mbembe continues by revisiting a proposition longstanding in archives of critical theory: Whatever we mean by capital, in order to understand its workings, its winding pathways, it will help to define it as image, and as spectacle. Mbembe describes the questions concerning image and spectacle that suddenly appear: What kind of image is capital? What type of spectacle is it? Who produces capital (as image)? For what purposes or effects is it produced? Mbembe insists that any response must be validated empirically. In this instance, he makes reference to Hans Belting’s work in visual culture—Belting does not always treat images as works of art, but as informing instances of cultural activity. The “question of the image” is an issue of various disciplines, and while there is immense literature on the subject, no single discipline can encompass the image. This unmanageability is apparent when the disciplines reach their end limits. To demonstrate this point, Mbembe schematizes two disciplinary examples: theology and philosophy. For Mbembe, in theology the image is universal, and its image claims theological significance. The image is reduced to a single common denominator, with unifying formulas developed with a practical end in view. Philosophy, on the other hand, is concerned with phenomena of the visible world and the truth of ideas. In this theoretical context, the material image is a possible object of linguistic or mental abstraction. It is clear such vast methodological differences present overwhelming theoretical odds.


Mbembe stays home. He reminisces about his interest in the problem of the image, which he says comes from a childhood in Cameroon, where television was not a part of life. He left the country in 1980 and saw his first movie at twelve years old, his next at nineteen years old. It was not until his thirties that he began attending movies regularly. He contrasts the popular cinematic experience with his local experience of masking, and explains that his childhood world was governed by socio-political debates about the mask as image. This personal experience provided a sense that the image involves more than the object, but also a series of mental acts that carry characteristics of the image. Mbembe was made to understand everyday life as a series of interactions between things and actions. The point here is to demonstrate the experience of the image is always personal, localized and contextualized. The image concerns issues of ontology, social principles, seen and unseen worlds, principles of apparition and oscillation. He notes how the image is activated through mediations, and refers to two intellectual traditions that address these issues: a tradition of French thought that (in line with Martin Jay’s arguement) denigrates the image, and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which, in various ways, approaches the image as a source of anxiety. On this occasion, Mbembe’s anxiety is with the problem of image and calculation; image and spectacle; the image understood as a set of associations.


Mbembe leaps. We land with him in Paris, reading philosophy and aesthetics, approaching the image in a different manner. This time, we are made to see the image as a question present in art history and theology, but external to philosophical discourse in the main. The claim here is that in the French tradition, literature is the space of the image. At once, key players enter the game: Bataille, Foucault, Deleuze, Blanchot, Nancy and Heidegger. In sweeping movements they chase a finite image. Mbembe slows them down by marking the imago, the death mask (I turned, awaiting the arrival of Barthes and Schapiro). Mbembe takes a time out: Why the death mask? What is the connection with capital?

Another turn. We are now in Berlin with Nietszche, Wagner, other German’s, in the shadow of World War One’s incomprehensibility and death, running toward meaning.

Momentum shifts. Now we approach Christian mythology, Lazarus and Martha make an entry, and Death is defeated by Jesus Christ’s masterful technique of excavation (it is even an iconoclastic moment, in which the gravestone is overturned).

The unseen image plays on, runs to Debord and through Baudrillard, is nearly glimpsed in spectacle, capital, capitalism, then shape-shifts and becomes another name for exteriority. Mbembe points to a radical exteriority, something like death itself, but fake, a naked presence that never actually becomes authentic experience.


Mbembe pushes harder. This time, Debord and spectacular society enter the arena to the cheers of modern society. Life here is an accumulation of spectacle, not a collection of images, but social relations transformed into material forces. Spectacle is both outcome and goal of the dominant mode of production, not added, not decorative, but at the core of society’s real and flowing into a world in which deceit deceives itself. Ranciere breaks in to emancipate the spectator, and we turn to look at ourselves, just as the image reappears to ask: How do we view? How do we look without falling into stupification? Mbembe calls a penalty: What about the politics of viewing? How could a (new?) pedagogy of viewing help confront the double bind of the ontology of the image?


Mbembe circles back. Debord’s intuitions have foreseen the centrality of images in contemporary mass culture. The image moves faster and faster, producing specular, screen culture as it goes. Virilio begins keeping time; Merleau-Ponty perceives imagistic movement. For Mbembe, the two team up to wonder how to think and understand ballistic trajectories—Mbembe wants to regain contact with the landscape. From the ground, Mbembe observes self-made traps of technological innovation and (along with Bergson, Deleuze and Guattari) sprints towards emancipation. Running with Mbembe, we happily end up where we began, confronting and confronted by images and their workings—but this time, we look more carefully. Mbembe pauses, looks at the spectator, and wonders: What sort of value do images bring to capital?

In the interim, more questions are raised. The concept of the fetish might add to game. During a commercial break, Pietz offers a genealogy of the mysterious concept. Others query about the relation between the image and the body, the meditating experience of the body, its location, and its experiential role. Images of currency appear, if only to pull apart movements from material based currency to paper based promises.


Mbembe plays to win. He passionately describes his World Cup—the daily work of watching, analyzing, loving and hating, the stuff of risk, speculation and investment—to outline the image as a center of indetermination. Such indeterminacy lingers long after discussions about the image have ceased. The proceedings of this spectacular event spill into subsequent discussions and open new spaces of inquiry. I will work towards a stopping point, then, with a remark about spectacle and the visual image.


Mbembe invites us to the field, and even those of us who just came to watch are surprised to learn that it is impossible to passively observe—we are all (unavoidably) active participants in a contest of visuality and meaning. As Mbembe notes elsewhere, visual phenomena may hypnotize, overexcite and paralyze the senses. Spectacular images create and express collective identities central to the creation of new images, the deployment of power, and political actions. Put simply, spectacular images are compelling and generative forces. In the end, we are left with more openings than closures, more questions than answers. We are left looking for that which we cannot see.

Raél Jero Salley

By/way of Passage

Image by Gabi Ngcobo

Gabi Ngcobo’s curatorial intervention “PASS-AGES: References & Footnotes” located in the space of the former Pass Office at the corner of Albert and Polly Street in Johannesburg engages with what it describes as “the most basic work of the apartheid state . . . the control of black bodies across the South African landscape.” It references in part the photography of the late Ernest Cole, of Drum pedigree, whose iconic “Young boy is stopped for his pass as white plainclothesman looks on” is reprinted in the program accompanying the project, fittingly more “newspaper” than catalogue. In order to animate the moment of arrest--apprehension but also stasis—that is the substance of Cole’s tableau, we might invoke Mongane Wally Serote’s “City Johannesburg”, a key text of the “Soweto Poetry” of the 1970s. Serote offers a kind of contingent ekphrasis tied to the same technology of power which had produced Cole’s image a decade earlier.

This way I salute you:

My hand pulses to my back trousers pocket

Or into my inner jacket pocket

For my pass, my life,

Jo’burg City.

The poem evokes a lived sense of the body’s disarticulation in response to its being hailed by the racist state apparatus, but the interpellation must be routed as much through Fanon as through Althusser. If the poem illustrates power becoming capillary, in Foucault’s sense, it returns this trope to the tissue of material embodiment in a manner reminiscent of the hemorrhage that spatters Fanon’s body with black blood in the fifth chapter of Black Skins, White Masks.

Gabi Ngcobo and her collaborators are intimately attuned to the materiality of the body and its capacity to archive the production of race in apartheid South Africa. They work in a particularly dense nexus of such production: the pass office, paradoxically stripped of its evidentiary status through the willed destruction of the archive—in the most literal, bureaucratic sense—by the state officials who worked there. Its emptiness must be “activated” in Ngcobo’s term, or “reenacted.” Kemang Wa Lehulere’s video installation “Pencil Test” does just this. It reenacts the notorious pencil test of apartheid classification, rendering it absurd through multiple insertions of pencils into the artist’s own hair. The video installation is part of a larger—spatialized--commentary on what is imagined as a kind of archaeology of race. Afro-combs set in a display case triangulate between “Pencil Test” and a second video installation, amplified by photographs, of another performance piece by the artist which documents his excavation of a hole in Gugulethu using an afro-comb. The assemblage is framed by the statement “I found a rib cage” that alludes to the unexpected discovery of the skeleton of a cow in the process of excavation.

This is reenactment as haunting, then, but equally as an “unearthing” of stories and narratives “that the dominant historical narratives have shoved six-feet under,” states Kemang Wa Lehulere in a conversation with Gabi Ngcobo reproduced in the “newspaper” catalogue. The degree to which this is a critique of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose own preoccupation with exhuming corpses is well known, is never rendered explicit. In a slightly different mode, Zanele Muholi and Mary Sibande use the female body as surface onto which to project enduring questions regarding domestic work as a site of domination erased by, precisely, the framing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission’s focus on gross violations of human rights as Mahmood Mamdani has long argued obscures the ability to see apartheid in structural terms, as well as in its quotidian instantiations. Muholi’s and Sibande’s contributions encourage us to ask how the figures of the “Madam” and the “Maid” continue to be joined. How, in other words, do they inhabit “complicity” in that slightly more expansive, more complex etymology which Mark Sanders has taught us to recognize? What is the duration and what the temporality of its folds and grooves? A tactile, even textile association feels appropriate here. Mary Sibande intervenes in this problematic under the sign “Long Live the Dead Queen,” reworking Victorian costume through the use of fabric typically associated with the uniforms of domestic workers in South Africa. Zanele Muholi, for her part, investigates the problematic of domestic work in a photographic series which encodes deliberate personal references. The series is staged under the banner of “Work as Usual” in a telling allusion to a 2002 newspaper article that documents the biography of the artist’s mother, itself included in the sequence and captioned “Work as usual for Bester.” One of its memorable images juxtaposes the high-heeled legs of the white madam with the figure of the maid on her knees washing the floor: a footnote, if you like, to the hierarchical relations prevailing between them.

I am aware that my own language at this point has been shaped by the foregrounding of polysemy in the title of the curatorial project itself: “PASS-AGES: References & Footnotes.” Ngcobo dislocates the term “passages” into yielding a play on temporality: “ages.” The plural seems to carry her conviction regarding something like the unfinished nature of the past, an exploration of the way in which certain “codes and cultural signifiers are repeated, universalized and preserved.” It is also surely worth noting that the history of passes and, famously, of pass resistance in South Africa predates the apartheid state. A “pass” is officially a “Reference Book” or “Bewysboek” in Afrikaans (from “bewys”—“prove”), although the derogatory popular Afrikaans designation “dompas” had far more currency. The pass book would have contained pages used for the endorsements of employers, that is, references. But the term is not allowed to settle into its familiar usage in this context. In a substitution that raises questions concerning the relation between power and knowledge production, then and now, the box-files on the desk that stands in for the presence of the apartheid official who might once have sat behind it in the deepest, most recessed of the exhibition spaces contain a pile of articles by Berlin-based curator and art critic, Jan Vervoert. His article is (pointedly? playfully?) a “reference” in academic jargon. It is tempting to draw this mobility of “reference” into conjunction with the notion of “archaeology” tacit in Kemang Wa Lehulere’s visual engagements with excavation. What “archaeology of knowledge” so to speak, is being entertained here? How do these shifting and erratic registers—register is itself a word pressed into duplicity in the immediate context of a pass office—sit with the linguistic deformations for which apartheid was notorious? As an aside, note that the “Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents) Act” of 1952 actually extends the pass law legislation to people formerly exempt from it.

What are we to make, finally, of the errance, as Paul de Man might have said, of “pass” itself, as noun, but also as verb? I have been suggesting that the coherence of our passages between the various visual spaces constituting the curatorial project is partly conditioned by Ngcobo’s bold critical gesture which is to make the curatorial project co-extensive with a kind of subterranean investigation of knowledge production through a device which the Russian Formalists might have designated the “realization of metaphor.” We have already seen this at work in the wrenching of “reference” between simultaneous contexts so as to settle as the stack of paper’s on a bureaucrat’s desk. Metaphor devolves back into materiality; the figurative becomes, in a sense, literal again. But to evoke the “realization of metaphor” is also to leverage “passing.” The literary theoretical term might serve to amplify the display of the life (and death) of Ernest Cole. Sean Jacobs’ homage to the dead Cole in the text that accompanies the project is entitled “The Passing of Ernest Cole” where passing is, and is not, a euphemism. “Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole successfully applied to be reclassified from African to Coloured in 1966,” Jacobs writes. “He was 26 years old.” Cole subsequently performs the trajectory of his life as the realization of a classificatory trope: coloured. We might say that Ernest Kole seizes a kind of perverse mobility delivered in passing and inadvertently by the logic of the classificatory mechanism itself. He is an “accident” of the system of the kind that Ackbar Abbas, drawing on the work of Paul Virilio, had previously asked participants in the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, a co-sponsor of the exhibition, to consider. “From Kole to Cole” proclaims the curatorial banner. But Cole’s trajectory, contra the foreclosure which the banner encourages through the very constraints of its form, is far from a simple one.

Cole’s posthumous inclusion in the curatorial event is also far from simple. Admittedly, the confluence of his photographs and of his life choices provides much of the historical ballast for the project. The specificity of Cole’s biography illustrates, as it were, the pernicious general logic of racial classification in South Africa. This is well and good. At the same time, the notion of reenactment as an illustration of overarching logics--the repetitive “codes” and “cultural signifiers” of the program--left me feeling somewhat disappointed. I would have liked to see a greater curatorial engagement: not with “the pass office” but with this pass office, the one on the corner of Polly and Albert. Spatial history, in Paul Carter’s understanding of it, seeks to reverse the subordination of space to history; the former’s being rendered a backdrop for the latter. Does Cole’s biography decorate the pass office in Ngcobo’s curatorial intervention or does the pass office decorate the impasses of personhood in apartheid and indeed post-apartheid South Africa? I would not settle for either version. In seeming, at times, to acquiesce in both, Ngcobo neglects a literal space, suspended instead as a byway, a byline, in a more general story. The performance, to reroute Dineo Bopape’s intervention in PASS-AGES, has indeed been deferred.

Louise Bethlehem

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Mega Event Babalas (Hangover)

Beyond the focused pain ('carpenters in the forehead', in the Danish vernacular) and cerebral fog, a hangover can inspire acute feelings of emptiness and self-loathing. But it can also engender a kind of pure, unfiltered reflection—can help hasten and illuminate signposts to a deeper understanding of who and where we are.

The reckoning occasioned by the conclusion of the World Cup is in one sense simply the continuation of a reckoning that began in 2004, when it was announced that South Africa would host the 2010 competition. From the outset, facile celebrations of footballing universality and Rainbow Nation cosmopolitanism were met with various denunciations, volleyed from both left and right, that declared the event either a colossal waste of precious resources or beyond the organizational capabilities of the 'immature' new South Africa. In the event's wake, this simplistic exchange continues apace. The actual experience of the tournament, though, has helped to expose the myopia of both vantages, and has demonstrated the urgency in adopting a more nuanced approach. The roundtable conversation between Eric Worby and Kamilla Swart, chaired by Julia Hornberger, was undertaken in the latter spirit.

Kamilla Swart has played a leadership role in the 2010 Research Agenda, a data-finding initiative concerned with measuring the immediate economic impact of the event and reflecting upon the potential of its long-term legacy. Concrete conclusions, she allowed, are at this early stage difficult to assert. FIFA's financial maneuverings are notoriously cryptic. The South African government has likewise been coy about the affinity or not between its own forecasts and after-the-event assessments; to cite just one example, the “Bid Document” that made the case for South Africa as World Cup host was only released into the public domain during the event itself.

Eric Worby's remarks elaborated upon three prompts: FIFA as the enforcer and beneficiary of a latter-day politics of concession—the ways in which the host nation cedes aspects of its sovereign power to football's governing body; the complex negotiations of race, nation, and aesthetic gratification that rationalize our attachment to one side or another as the tournament progresses; the notion of Bafana Bafana as a 'good loser'—the moral authority that is thought to derive from this identification, and the fraught psychic politics it evokes.

If the lead-up to the event within South Africa was characterized by a profound state of anxiety—coupled, of course, with feverish anticipation—the prevailing mood of the aftermath, Eric suggested, is an ambivalent introspection: are we still at the stage of the not-yet, or have we arrived? Equivocation on this point should not be equated with a crisis of self-confidence or with a retreat to fatalism. Indeed, the 'not-yet' can be inhabited as a moment of perpetual becoming, a space wherein a critical disposition toward the present stands beside and speaks in rhythm with utopian intonations of what might come. If we are, in good faith, to pronounce the World Cup a 'success', it will be because the event broadened our understanding of the possible, at the same time it renewed our commitment to the labor demanded by that possibility.

In the ensuing conversation, Achille Mbembe spoke of the new, more mutable articulations of public and private space, and the new, more inventive languages of collective self-narration, that acquired embryonic form during the event. The political consequence of these tentative expressions of newness might not reveal itself for some time, and whatever causal relation we eventually identify—between the experience of the event and social evolution in its aftermath—will inevitably be speculative.

What happened inside the stadia, on the official fields of play, might be the most enduring source of inspiration, because it is the one we can most readily relive. On 20 June I visited Soccer City to witness the group-stage encounter between Brazil and Cote d'Ivoire. Cote d'Ivoire were frustrated and Brazil were sumptuous, before the match devolved at its close into mutual remonstration and melodrama. The next morning, where I was staying in Jabavu, Soweto, some neighborhood kids and I attempted a reenactment of Luis Fabiano's brilliant second goal—scored with the help of his hand, he would later confess—and other moments from the match that will evolve even as they are etched in cultural memory. Mimicry, as Derek Walcott once observed, can be an act of imagination too.

Eli Jelly-Schapiro

More writing on the world cup by Eli Jelly-Schapiro is available at: http://www.socialtextjournal.org/cgi-bin/mt/mt-cp.cgi?__mode=view&blog_id=6&id=221.