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.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Capital as Image

Achille Mbembe. Image by Annie Leatt

Achille Mbembe began his talk by stating that the title, “Capital as Image,” is deceptive. On the one hand, he meant that he would not be addressing the issue of capital as image in any systematic way; that the ideas he would be presenting were tentative, exploratory, fragmentary, and experimental. On the other hand, his opening gambit cleverly introduced a key term in the ruminations that followed: deception. According to an important tradition of French thought, Mbembe observed, the image is fundamentally deceptive. At the same time, it is imbued with deep meaning. Through a series of personal reflections and philosophical readings, Mbembe illustrated how the image is always underpinned by the effective use of this ambiguity.

For Mbembe, the mask epitomizes the ontology of the image. Reflecting on the first time he saw a mask as a child in Cameroon, Mbembe adumbrated a number of tropes related to the image: the play of surfaces and shadows, the principles of appearance and oscillation, the dialectic of concealment and transparency, and the underneath of things. But Mbembe was more interested in a different mask: the death mask, that mould that renders the face in objective form. For Blanchot – a crucial thinker in Mbembe’s exposition – the death mask seeks meaning in death beyond its immediate context. In other words, it implies the resurrection and transcendence of physical contingency. Mbembe recalls Jesus’ injunction to the buried Lazarus: “Lazaras, come forth!” Following Blanchot’s exegesis of this Gospel, Mbembe suggests that the mission of reading and literature is to open a path, to bring forth what has been buried and give it new meaning. All of this means that the image is simply another name for exteriority, an outside so external that it can never become authentic experience. It is, as Mbembe tells us, the end of every appearance.

What happens, then, when life becomes nothing more than the accumulation of spectacles? This is a world, as Mbembe reminds us, that Guy Debord glimpsed decades ago. Under conditions where the spectacle mediates social relationships as a material force, and thereby inserts itself in the very heart of society, “deceit deceives itself” (Debord). From this double deception arise forms of separation, alienation, dispossession, and a host of prolematics at the centre of capitalist critique.

In his conclusion, Mbembe asked: “How are we to think of images and the technologies that produce them?” Moreover, how might we understand the value that images bring to capital? In this tentative talk, Mbembe did not claim to have answers to these questions. He suggested, however, that one possible line of inquiry would take up Paul Virilio’s thoughts on the ubiquity, speed, and force of images. If I understood him correctly, Mbembe suggested that a critique that seriously engages the technologies of images and perception might help us forge a freer relationship with images.

Most of the responses addressed issues of historical genealogy. One participant reminded us of William Pietz’s genealogy of the fetish, in which the magic fetish arises out of an encounter with the unknown, and in particular the magic “fetish” of Africans encountered during the slave trade. Other participants were more interested in the notion of deception. They asked questions such as: Do images hide anything these days, or they are mere simulacra? And: Is it not the case that today truth is the best form of the lie?

From my own perspective as a musicologist, I would be interested in thinking about how the sonorous might unsettle our notions of deception. Although one participant was vehement that the term “image” is not restricted to visual perception and thus that discussion of different sensorial apparatuses is irrelevant, the history of Western metaphysics does not support this view. We need only recall Derrida’s many critiques of the “ontology of presence” – which, it needs to be said, is all about the voice – to realize the problematic place of the sonorous in Western thought. In fact, despite their many differences and nuances, it is possible to argue that the properly Romantic notion of sound as unmediated presence continues to haunt much recent theory. For example, in Jean-Luc Nancy’s recent book, Listening, he claims problematically that whereas with the gaze “the subject is referred back to itself as object,” in “terms of listening, it is, in a way, to itself that the subject refers or refers back.” In a way, this privileging of listening is related to a mistrust not only of the image but of sight itself. Some have argued that this mistrust is based on a Judaic strain of theorizing epitomized by Levinas and Lyotard, whose ethics were based on the Hebraic taboo of visual representation. So Lyotard writes in Driftworks that “in Hebraic ethics representation is forbidden, the eye closes, the ear opens in order to hear the father’s word.” And Levinas will write that hearing breaks “with the self-complete world of vision and art.” For him, “sound is a ringing, clanging scandal.”

These are admittedly limited readings. But they help us to explain Mbembe’s comments later in the day during a discussion of the World Cup. Mbembe referred to two recent events in which South Africa broke productively with its nationalist clichés. First, in order to participate in something we might never see again, people in South Africa picked up the vuvuzela. In doing so, says Mbembe, noise was turned into voice. “But a voice that remains to be deciphered,” he quickly added. Second, he referred to the “glossolalia” experienced at a fan zone in Cape Town. This glossolalia resulted is a kind of public community seldom experienced in South Africa. Without belabouring the point, it’s obvious that sound doesn’t elicit the same kind of mistrust that images do. In fact, sound is often understood as our only alternative.

The task, as I see it, is to demystify sound by not thinking of it as the innocent Other of the deceitful image. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the sonorous is not equivalent to the visual. This is not simply a phenomenological matter. On the contrary, we need to develop an ontology of the sonorous at the same moment as we develop an ontology of the image. An ontology of the sonorous will not, however, reveal the “secret” of the image. And this, of course, is precisely my point.

Gavin Steingo

More on Charismatic Financialism

Image by Aude Dieude

In his opening remarks heralding the inception of the 2010 JWTC, Achille Mbembe, senior researcher at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), crisply laid out the key themes and critical endeavors that would provide signposts for participants in the ensuing week and a half of dialogue and reflection. Mbembe described these as:

o Conceptualizing and experimenting with heuristics for the conduct of global conversation based in the South

o Thinking critically about such a conversation’s relationship to very particular urban spaces, which in turn may provide the performative realm for the playing out of new cultural moves that offer the possibility for the production of new forms of life (i.e., self-ownership, self-creation, and freedom)

o Giving careful consideration to the unique contours of wealth and property in the South African context

o Relating this local/regional scene of capital production, mobilization, and accumulation to the global circulatory network of financial capital and its ever more technocratic and opaque techniques.

Taking direct aim at the meta-discursive theme of financial capitalism’s unique influence on the global structure of feeling, Arjun Appadurai’s paper “Charismatic Financialism” provided a pointed and powerful opening to the workshop and established an extremely productive platform upon which to begin pursuing a vision of how “theorizing from the south” may offer flashes of redemptive insight in the face of the obscene scene of contemporary capitalism’s glaring social inequities.

Appadurai began his critique by situating the audience at the moment in the early 1970s when the episodic evolution of “efficient market” theory crystallized into the hegemonic basis for a new kind of dominant capitalist business model, one based on the utilization of derivatives for the identification, calculation, packaging (i.e., securitization), marketing, and selling of risk. Bearing witness to the unexpected swing toward radical indeterminacy in financialization’s neoliberal modus operandi—an interregnum precipitated by the US-led global credit crisis of 2007-08—Appadurai’s paper advanced an implicit call for the repoliticization of high finance’s narcissistic and solipsistic conception of risk and risk-management.

In this respect, “Charismatic Financialism” represented another stage in Appadurai’s confident entry into the rich field of scholarship regarding what has been productively referred to as “cultures of finance,” a nomenclature that congeals a set of debates actively shaped by disciplines operating outside of the cloistered realm of neo-classical economics and the managerial orthodoxy of the traditional Anglo-American MBA program. With an eye toward the established literature, Appadurai positioned his account in the space between the two primary strands of non-doctrinaire capitalist hermeneutics; one exemplified by economic sociology and the social science of finance’s preoccupation with what Foucault would describe as financial capital’s “micro-techniques” of power; the other categorized by an anthropologically derived focus on contemporary capitalism’s penchant for the reanimation of enchantment, magic, and luck within the popular imagination.

Poised between these two approaches, the crux of Appadurai’s critical insurgency hinged upon what he called an “odd historical telescoping” of the economic and religious sociology of Max Weber, a rich body of scholarship which Appadurai employed as the roadmap for a sophisticated genealogy of capitalism’s ethical core. Through a close re-reading of Weber’s classic study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (viz., Die Protestantische Ethik Und Der Geist Des Kapitalismus), Appadurai traced the epistemological thread connecting Luther’s anti-capitalist Christianity to the “invisible hand” of providence in Calvin’s subsequent and decisive contribution to the Protestant Reformation. In Calvinism, the actions of human beings in the world have the ability to reflect and extend divine will, a dialectical reversal in the gift of salvation that paves the way for the market to function as a beautiful machine going about the business of what Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein infamously referred to as “God’s work.” The arc of this evolution is crucial for Appadurai for it reveals how the habitus that finance capital has fashioned in its own image emerged and ossified as common sense.

Given that Weber did not concern himself with the capitalist figure as a uniquely modern incarnation of risk and risk-taking, of what relevance, Appadurai asks, is he to the contemporary scene? On this matter, Appadurai is keen to suggest that a ghost lies embedded within financial capitalism’s quantitative risk-management devices, one that could make an uncanny and disruptive return via the eruption of model-defiant tropes of “uncertainty.” Interestingly enough, Appadurai locates this uncanny presence not within exogenous “Black Swan” events, but rather within what he calls “Device Skeptics” who operate deep within the circuitry of global capital’s circulatory motherboard. These Device Skeptics reawaken the spirit of uncertainty within modern capitalism through the dexterity with which they make daringly large bets against the herd-like behavior symptomatic of an asset price bubble. For Appadurai, the contrarian charisma put forward by “short-selling bears,” like the celebrated financier George Soros and the hedge fund apostle John Paulson, channels a kind of pre-modern ethos of uncertainty and excess reminiscent of the potlatch chiefs in traditional societies, thereby instantiating an “Uncertainty Imaginary” that lies outside of the otherwise prevailing system. Here, we can witness chance reasserting itself over “the Culture of Control.”[1]

Yet, for all of this, there remains something disturbingly unsatisfying about Appadurai’s account of these cryptic market pessimists. For, after all, we might ask, are they true charismatics, or merely synthetic facsimiles thereof? Appardauri himself confessed during the question and answer portion of the discussion that the “Charismatic Financialism” of the short-selling bears might ultimately boil down to merely just one more arbitrage opportunity among many—however colossal in scope and profitability.[2] In my own skepticism about the efficacy of regarding the proverbial “Master of the Universe” as a weirdly spectral force, I recall the scathing critique of Weber’s theory of charisma put forward recently by the late religious sociologist and cultural critic, Phillip Rieff. In his book, Charisma: The Gift of Grace and How it Has Been Taken From Us, Rieff argues that Weberian charismatic authority is merely the stuff of celebrity, a flimsy and dangerous imitation of the fire and brimstone-laced interdictions of the genuine article. So, rather than offering the “animus” of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, the Weberian charismatic merely gives a therapeutic masquerade of conflict resolution. As Rieff puts it, “our charismatics [today] are engaged in no wrestling with angels, but rather with the obeying of demons.”[3] Furthermore, he stresses, “there is no charisma without creed…there must be a conscious and intense established symbolic in the field before there can be a standard that can be used to break through that field. Doubt, skepticism, infidelity, are not charisma.” Of course, the stern ministrations of a theological scold like Rieff may in fact lead us directly to the kind of charismatic authority proffered by Osama Bin Laden, al-Shabab, and politico-evangelists like the Tea Party’s favorite son, Rand Paul.

So, ultimately, I come away from Appadurai’s brilliant exposition musing about whether “theorizing from the South” can achieve resonance by offering vigorous resistance to two diametrically opposed but tightly connected ideological systems: a) one whereby charismatic authority is wielded in the name of a market-led therapeutics where all that is solid melts into the air; and b) the other playing out as an adversarial—even violent—reinscription of a faith-based fundamentalism that Rieff describes as “holy terror.” It is from within this unlikely and harrowing aporia that the phoenix of redemption might yet arise.

Christopher Holmes Smith

University of Southern CaliforniaAnnenberg School for Communication & Journalism

[1] Jackson Lears, Something for Nothing: Luck in America (NY: Viking, 2003).

[2] Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (NY: W.W. Norton, 2010)

[3] Phillip Rieff, Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How it has Been Taken From Us (NY: Vintage, 2008).

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Charismatic Financialism

In the opening session of this year’s JWTC, Arjun Appadurai presented a paper which theorizes a way in which we might be able to uncover the “ghost in the machine” that animates the ubiquitous presence of technical market devices (from credit scores to complex options-pricing algorithms) as well as to identify a particular “speculative ethic” which infuses the subjectivity of economic actors across different registers of social action.

As a gloss (and at the risk of reduction), I would contextualize Arjun’s paper as an initial response to the growing and developing body of scholarship that takes up the constitution and implications of financial markets as an object of inquiry. Loosely organized under the sign of the social studies of finance, this field of study is largely influenced by the important work of Michel Callon and his interlocutors[1] and takes up, in a gesture to Weber, the relation between risk and uncertainty, choosing to focus on the ways in which technical devices and economic models mediate the relation. Crudely put, scholarship of this character situates technological devices as possessing “performative” power, in that the device or model “performs” the market. The issue for this work is not so much why or to what end the device responds or anticipates, but rather the ways in which the device is deployed in practice, and the peculiar socio-technical assemblages that cohere in the process. Importantly, this work has documented, often in granular detail, this performance, tracing the ways in which the model or device actually works in its situated practice, and producing consequences both intended and not.

While this gloss of a large body of work is indeed reductive, it does, I hope, signal the context in which I would place Arjun’s project. Both Arjun’s project and the extant scholarship on finance agree on financialization as a central diacritic of our times, which can be thought of as the ways in which finance pronounces itself in a more amplified manner and form to larger scales of social life relative to other historical formations (indeed, as Jean Comaroff noted in the second session on Tuesday, financialization itself is not new, just as globalization is not new). Simultaneously, Arjun’s project presumes an “age of risk”, gesturing to a Beckian concept of risk society, where risk is both immanent to and determinate of particular structures and institutions, and takes on a specific character in modernity. The technoscape of modernity, then, becomes a site where risk-objects and definitions are determined, often in highly normative terms (for example, interventions that occur in order to reduce harm to at-risk populations often produce violence in the name of harm-reduction). These technical devices in the financescape, then, can very well be (and often are described as) methodicalizing in their usage, producing routines and techniques of capital that seem to be external and commensurable. Yet, as Arjun is forcefully arguing, these devices might very well exist and circulate in such manners (in the Callonian sense), but say nothing about how the disposition of the financial actor might congeal into a socio-technical assemblage that is diametrically opposed to the spirit identified by Weber as necessary for capitalism. Said differently, the rationalizing and methodical devices make room for a type of actor that implodes the this-worldly asceticism of the Calvinist work-ethic.

The difference between the more “device oriented” accounts and the project articulated by Arjun can, and is, best expressed through Weberian frames. As Arjun points out, The Protestant Ethic reads like “a thriller” at times, as we follow Weber on the trail of the ethos which animates the dispositions and sensibilities of capital’s need for labor power and capital accumulation (Weber makes the strong point that markets and labor are not new in capitalism, but that the form of labor and logic of accumulation is what makes it different from earlier historical formations). I would even suggest that Arjun’s paper continues that spirit, as he takes us on a new thriller that seeks out the ethos, the spirit in the moment where finance is obscured, opaque, elided, and slippery as (again in a nod to the Comaroff’s presentation) culture is increasingly commodified, compounded by a dense technoscape of communicative and computational tools.

Crudely put, I take Arjun’s project as an inquiry that helps us to understand and explain the current ‘spirit’ of financialism and its speculative character, asking the question as to what are the cultural and social sensibilities, formations, beliefs, and imaginaries that enable finance to emerge as a central diacritic that is emblematic of our times? For Arjun, Weber’s deliberations on the relationship between risk and uncertainty is of crucial importance. Simply put, risk is the outcome of making uncertainty probable. In practice, that which is uncertain can be subjected to set of mediating rationalities, producing a set of possible outcomes which are calculable possibilities for agentive action. Largely expressed as a means and end relation in Weber (salvation is uncertain, therefore a commitment to a this-world asceticism of work makes probable one’s salvation), Arjun recapitulates the relation as a decisive and necessary element of financialization, where the means and ends are not couched in religious salvation, but in the accumulation of capital, or simply put, profit.[2] Arjun recapitulates the relation as a decisive and necessary element of finance, where, crucially, the processes by which uncertainty is turned into risk is the moment of intervention. In the financescape, these uncertainties are subjected to specific economic rationalities, mediated by technological devices, producing a set of possibilities that are projected onto screens. The distribution of possibilities is further mediated by concentrations of capital, as traders commit capital to certain possibilities that are assumed to maximize gain and accumulate profit. Clearly, this process opens up questions of structural power and the circulation of surplus capital, while also reminding us that the screen displaying the set of possibilities also screens out other possibilities for action, foreclosing and effacing the non-economic forms of possibilities.

Here, Arjun’s theorizations take us into the spaces of financial action, locating the tension between cultures in finance and cultures of finance. For Arjun, the “short selling bear” articulates a contrarian position where the relation between risk and uncertainty is pronounced in a strong fashion. That is to say, the “short sellers” (i.e., the financial actor who identifies and bets against the ‘efficiency’ of the market to distribute value) are “device skeptics” who are those “players who are not only contrarians but are actors who are willing to infuse their reading of uncertainties...into their reading of the timing of the downturn as measured on the screens that reflect risk.” The contrarian has identified in the most clear fashion a methodicality and disposition which is able to exploit uncertainty, narrowing the outcomes of action according to distributions as predicted by the models and computational devices of the technoscape.

To my thinking, the issue here seems to be just this tension between this culture in finance and to a larger culture of finance (if we agree that cultural forms are increasingly marked by finance in a more amplified manner). That is to say, the ways in which these dispositions, actions, methods and routines become more generalizable, mapping onto larger patterns of social action and decision-making processes. The short-seller possesses a particular charisma, articulating properties of an ideal type (in the Weberian sense) which percolate out into larger scales of social action.

I am inclined to include another ideal type of financial actor possessing a similar charismatic position in a culture in finance -- the proprietary trader. A proprietary trader is one who trades with the financial institution’s own money, and for the institution’s own account; in other words, the prop trader is not burdened with the social ties that ‘regular’ traders, whose primary purpose is to arrange buyers and sellers in space and time. To my thinking, the prop trader comes the closest to embodying homo economicus, the subject of neoliberal (or, in the Comaroff’s conceptualization, post-liberal) governmentality. The prop trader is the exceptional self, self-regulating and self-disciplining (proven by being ‘trusted’ with the firm’s own capital), deploying a technologically mediated market logic rationalized by an efficient market, making an endless series of choices under the sign of risk, where each choice can be self-actualizing, or, conversely, self-annihilating. The premise here is that the prop trader, in the early historical moment of formation, becomes the ideal model for a range of financial actors, and whose tactics become an ideal strategy for managers as it is deployed in wider and wider scales. Hedge funds and their managers come to mind, as do the now everyday practices of most risk-taking traders whose job is no longer defined through customer-oriented actions, but by an ability to manage risk profitably. The question that remains open for investigation, and to which Arjun’s theorizations prove invaluable, is whether or not this type of knowledge, in its ‘spirit’ form, circulates outward from a culture in finance, structuring, to a greater or lesser degree, larger social registers in the constitution of a culture of finance.

Jean Comaroff responded to Arjun’s paper, rightly pointing out that any account of finance must include some form of political economy, and I would agree strongly. One point of inflection, for example, might include a robust account of surplus capital, tracing its insertions and extractions, its formations and obstacles, as a way to express a larger structural logic that patterns some of the enablements. Such an account would also add further political dimensions, as one would be forced to interrogate what it means to live in a world where surplus capital is distributed in particular ways, rather than the obstacles and failures of the smooth flow of capital which dominate the current accounts of the current historical formation of the global economy (for example, the economic reorganizations occurring today -- I hesitate to call this a crisis, as it has a more permanent character -- are often mediated by accounts of excess and greed, or failure and incompetence, which tell us nothing about the way in which capital is structurally organized).

Importantly, an invocation of a Weberian frame strongly signals a turn to culture and resituates the terms in a different register to the economic. The economic grammar used to describe and orient finance remains opaque and external to cultural forms and sensibilities, and a gesture to develop a new grammar of the economy seems an important political move. As long as economics and finance continues to describe and define itself on its own terms, the fewer openings for intervention become possible. The distinction is in keeping with the spirit of Weber’s work, in that it is an attempt to locate and describe the rise of ‘financialization’, but beyond its economistic, technological, or functionalist accounts. In trying to uncover this ‘spirit’ which enables the logic of finance to smoothly circulate, it is very much a cultural conversation, as it realizes that change will not emerge within the concentrated sites of power, where uncertainty is pathologically transformed to risk, but rather in those spaces where finance plays, perhaps, a reduced role, and where uncertainty is filled not with risk, but the possibility for something different.

Robert Wosnitzer

New York University

Department of Media, Culture, and Communication

[1] For a full set of all the referenced work in Arjun’s paper, as well as this work mentioned, email me directly here.

[2] Frank Knight, an early translator of Weber, wrote the seminal economic text on risk, titled “Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit” (1929).

Afropolis Metabolis

Sharad Chari at JWTC

After Arjun Appadurai's reflections on the Geists and ghosts driving big finance, this afternoon's session revolved around the assets of the urban poor. Sharad Chari argues that subalternity can itself be an asset: when people "refuse to be ruined, while surrounded by processes of ruination," for example residents in Durban's South acting up against the toxic industries that pollute their livelihoods. Biopolitics are here turned into techniques of struggle and protest. But, one might ask through John and Jean Comaroff's discussion on the contemporary self, what if making an asset of ones own wastedness is not (only) a progressive tool as Chari suggests, but describes a dramatic new relationship in which people literally mine their own bodies as assets, or else brand themselves as waste or as waste worker and their space as waste land, as the Comaroffs described for the post-industrial American town of Youngstown? And how can we interrogate space itself as an asset - succinctly articulated by Ricardo Cardoso: "Can the subaltern produce space?"

Edgar Pieterse turned the question of assets of the urban poor into one of politics: sustainable city- making for the future. Crucial to this project, Pieterse argues, is a better understanding of everyday cityness in the global South, including the variegated sets of knowledge, experience, and capability of the urban poor. Pieterse suggests imagining cities in their metabolic flows. This means thinking the sociality of a city through both its human and non-human relations (i.e. understanding the life cycle of a bridge as part of social relations). It also entails stretching the understanding of urban infrastructures towards the various social, communicative, often provisional infrastructures that the urban poor build in the absence of functioning material infrastructures (de Boeck 2002, Simone 2004). In such visions of the city, rationalities of urban survival and urban politics extend beyond the cognitive to include the diversity of affective rationalities of everyday life.

Surprisingly under-discussed remained the question of uncertainty and risk. What assets do the urban poor create, use, or strive for in conditions where uncertainty is a permanent feature of urban life? And how can uncertainty become a resource itself to make things happen (Simone 2010)? This brings the assets of the urban poor close to the taste for uncertainty and speculation at Wall Street. We would then have to look at the assets of the speculators on Wall Street and the urban entrepreneurs who struggle for everyday survival in downtown Dakar or Luanda in one and the same laboratory of self creation in precarious times.

Christine Hentschel

Institute for Cultural Inquiry (ICI), Berlin

Identity and Property in Precarious Times

John and Jean Comaroff with Eric Worby, JWTC

Jean and John Comaroff’s session on ‘Identity and Property in Precarious Times’ took a different look at themes that had also preoccupied the first day of the workshop. How do we study the forms of subjectivity associated with economic action at the present time, and what does doing so teach us about the larger trends that are shaping the future? Arjun Appadurai came at these issues on Monday through a return to Weber in light of Callon, leading to a call for work on the kinds of ethos inspiring how various actors (traders, for instance) animate the instruments or devices of contemporary markets. The Comaroffs’ intervention was to lay out the terms for an immanent critique of what they called the emerging identity economy. How are we to understand a world where (some) people make a living by owning and selling their culture? What configurations of justice and recognition emerge around this activity? What kinds of social entities congeal through it? How does the commodification of culture relate to other historical iterations of self-possession?

The Comaroffs’ approach to these questions started from a (Foucault-inspired) sketch of continuities and disjunctures between the logic of classical liberalism and a present moment they variously termed post- and neo-liberal. According to this narrative, the world at present is witnessing the involution of categories, distinctions and relationships that once marked the constitution of civil society through acts of exchange among self-possessed individuals: free subjects who exteriorized their selves in forms of property produced by work, protected by law, and circulated in markets. Most importantly for their argument, neo-liberalism sees the narrowing--to the point of collapse--of any residual gap between the self and the forms of property on which self-realization in the liberal world depends. With this comes the collapse of the idea of a social world mediated by acts of labour, and into the resulting space step subjects like the South Africans and others whom the Comaroffs cite as (self-consciously) possessing and selling not labour, but identity itself.

This is the basis for what they call Ethnicity Inc., the object of their recent book by that title. Increasingly naturalized modes of belonging (genetic ones, particularly) become the means of membership in legal corporations that control the rights to exploit and profit from heritage, indigenous knowledge, ancestral land, and other such ethnic properties. (Things that in more modernist times were seen as the very antitheses of the logic of the commodity form.) The result is a new configuration of self, culture, and social being--including new forms of harm and exclusion the Comaroffs identified particularly with life in the waste ecologies of the formerly industrial zones of the world (both North and South).

The early round of responses focused mostly on the way the Comaroffs traced the genealogy of Ethnicity Inc. Several participants asked how the emergence of the identity economy would look if narrated specifically from the South. How would the story of ethnic tourism look if one saw precedents in Fanon’s account of the black subject rendered dependent on white recognition, for instance? Would the communitarian dimensions of cultural property look different if one started, not with the logic of Lockean liberalism, but the history of the constitution of property in the colonial world? From a different angle, what is occluded by moving from classical liberalism to its neoliberal involution without thinking through the impact of the first ‘post-liberal’ era: that of 20th century state capitalism?

In answering these challenges, as well as subsequent questions on the status of high theory in the contemporary moment, the Comaroffs insisted that their project is to understand a world that more and more understands itself in terms of the intertwining of property and identity. Thinking through the logic of the subject-as-commodity is motivated not by traditional theory, then, but rather as a way of engaging the terms of thought in the neoliberal age.

Myself I find that a deeply compelling argument on the interplay of method, theory and history. But it seems to me that hard work still lies ahead to discern, in a rigorous way, exactly where developments cross the line from continuity to epochal difference. One participant pointed out the affinities between Ethnicity Inc. and the central tenet of post-workerism: the idea that we have shifted from a condition where the isolable and measurable industry of factory workers manufactured valuable things, to one where value stems from our ineffably subjective contributions to an economy of images, attachments and desires. Without a doubt this illuminates some aspects of an ongoing shift, but it also draws its force from a strangely artisanal account of what industrial labour was even at its height in the Fordist economy. What if one sustains instead the idea that even classically proletarian subjects never survived by commodifying their labour or its products (both of which belonged instead to the capital employing them) but instead by selling the time in which they exercised their own subjective capacities for action? If subjectivity is time, and time is the most important form of property that industrial labour constituted and alienated, then the lines between industrial and identity economies begin to seem less radically distinct than implied by a contrast between the selling of labour and culture.

Hylton White

Wits University

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Of cities of cash and gold

Arjun Appadurai presenting at JWTC

In the first public lecture of the 2010 edition of the JWTC, entitled “Slum Cosmopolitanism: The Cultural Tactics of Mumbai’s Urban Poor,” Arjun Appadurai gave us a taste of how one can fly from elevated discussions on Weberian thought, down to the vernacular; a move without which any enterprise aimed at theorising can prove not only vain but also irrelevant. And this is a point worth underlying since this capacity is not that frequent among thinkers. What Appadurai precisely presented to us by putting forth the background, components and experience of “slum cosmopolitanism,” is a critique of the most frequently elitist definitions of cosmopolitanism.

One first comment that comes to my mind relates to the very attempt of the JWTC to “theorize from the South.” Because the workshop is meant to be an experiment, this endeavour will be further discussed in the coming days. The South is here thought mainly in opposition to the North as the still dominant provider of theory. It is also approached, to follow Jean and John Comaroff’s remark, from a “technical” point of view, as a place where experiments are conducted before being (re)exported to the North. Last but not least, the South, which is sometimes labelled “global,” remains an unstable notion, a multifarious space and time with many connections to its Northern counterpart. One way to further nuance this opposition is therefore to wonder if we are not actually trying to theorize from the Northern part of the South, and to stress that one would probably struggle to do so from the Southern part of the North. By this I suggest that Wits may not be representative of Southern based institutions of higher education and that it is probably a more privileged place to think from than many universities in Europe could be. One can also wonder whether institutions such as let’s say the American universities of Beirut and Cairo are better described as Northern or as Southern institutions. Yet what Arjun Appadurai showed us tonight is that it is crucial to think one south from another south.

Slums, most commonly called townships in South Africa, remain here a still too familiar life experience. They are defining spaces that challenge politically asserted certainties such as democracy by showing that if “one man, one vote” can constitute a beginning it is far from being a finite achievement. They are places that politicians are now fearful to visit since the reassertion of their commitment to change does no longer guarantee them a quiet visit. But they are also places where leaders as much as shack dwellers counterparts are drawn, just like in Mumbai, into the microcosmopolitanism that encompasses the hopes, strategies and needs of the urban poor.

Arjun Appadurai led us to a visit in the streets of Mumbai’s Nagpada slum, in a city he once described as the “city of cash.” He did so speaking with his guts just like an Edward Said would leave literature for a moment to speak against the occupation of Palestine, before eventually turning back to theorisation on the basis of his sympathy in the literal meaning of the term. Mumbai and Nagpada are the setting for the mobilisation of the Alliance, a federation that gathers three movements, namely SPARC (Society for the Protection of Area Resource Centres), Mahila Milan (Union of Women), and the NSDF (National Slum Dwellers Federation). According to Appadurai, they can be characterised as groupings of the “progressively organised urban poor” that developed a capacity to debate and negotiate in a cosmopolitan space, hence participating in the deepening of democracy.

In South Africa, such mobilisations, which are connected to India’s through the Slum/ Shack Dwellers International (SDI), are visible in groups such as, for instance, the South African Shackdwellers’ Movement, the Anti-Eviction Campaign, or the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, some of which are also part of the umbrella organisation known as the Anti-Privatisation Forum. They’ve been engaging government and the ANC over the years by demanding the provision of basic rights and services such as housing, electricity and water. To extend Appadurai’s argument to South Africa and though it also differs from the Indian context, one can question the meaning of “cosmopolitanism from below” in relation to recent waves of xenophobic violence that have been targeting mainly non South African residents of the townships.

They are one challenge among others to South Africa’s unique project of establishing a non racial society. But they also express the will of some actors, led by political or economic agendas, to play against slum cosmopolitanism rather than to resort to it in order to achieve their goals. Such enterprises are not without recalling the 1990s ethnically based violence between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party and they are not disconnected either, to echo Jean and John Comaroff, from ethno capital or business. By this I mean that gangs and criminal organisations are involved in xenophobia but also that political actors who are supposed to be rooted in the principles of the Freedom Charter are failing to take responsibility. In this last regard, the recent call by the South African Communist Party to consider xenophobia as nothing less than crime, hence calling for police and legal repression on xenophobic criminals, is interesting but does not constitute a comprehensive solution.

To such an extent and because the roots of racism and xenophobia (the two being interestingly distinguished by many in the South African case) are social, economic and political rather than otherwise, they are also a call to take seriously the “injunction” to local cosmopolitanism, which has too often been attacked or unprotected by the state, rather than that to comply with monolithic definitions of the self. This need for township resident organisations to be considered as full fledged interlocutors by state institutions, as well as by the ANC or the trade unions -many of whom still tend to view them as competitors rather than as partners- finally means that former leaders of the struggle are also entitled to renew their “capacity to aspire” if they want to succeed.

Raphaël Botiveau
University Paris 1 & French Institute of South Africa