Monday, October 3, 2011

Literature and the Ordinary

In a conversation strongly shaped until now by Anthropology, Philosophy, and History, could the ordinary find a home in poetry, the novel and criticism? A panel of Literature scholars promised to answer this question by tracing three perspectives on literary beginnings, middles and recursions.

Sarah Nuttall introduced the panel by pointing to the crucial role of literature in South Africa as a platform for the ordinary. However, in contrast to the more familiar “hermeneutics of suspicion,” with its interrogation of the text to reveal what it hides, Nuttall asks us to think of literature through its surfaces as well as its symptoms. In other words, to dwell on its aesthetics as well as its symbolism. She also noted the recent ascendancy in South Africa of the non-fictional and the “fiction of the real.” Are we still tracing, in Njabulo Ndebele’s terms, a move from the ‘ordinary’ to the ‘intimate’, she asked’?

The first of the panel’s speakers, Harry Garuba, spoke about the construction of the ordinary in literary modernity. He noted that from the beginning the genre of the novel arrived with a heavy investment in the ordinary. However, the techniques and methods of rendering the ordinary are the subject of ongoing debate. In literary modernity, we arrive at the ordinary through the opposite of realism.

Garuba traced the ordinary in the Black literary critical tradition, which he argued comes through the work of Dubois, Fanon, Ellison, Cabral, Baldwin, who craft an ordinary which is neither journalistic nor realistic. Instead, this literature invokes storytelling, art, music. In Black literature, the ordinary needed to be imagined away from the spectre of racial conflict, therefore it could not be represented through realism. In fact, it needed to be defined in opposition to realism. After all, in the Black experience of reality the world was not so ordinary.

Garuba noted that the ordinary has become weighted with contemporary significance. During the discussion, Achille Mbembe would describe this as a time when “the reservoirs of belief are swelling and swelling.” In this context the ordinary has become the valued currency of our time - sought, defined and claimed. But what is the ordinary in the age of image and spectacle, Garuba asked. With the rise of rightwing politics, the pursuit of the ordinary and the uses to which it is put have intensified, and yet we are faced with the impossibility of its representation.

In fact, the representation of the ordinary has always contested. Garuba pointed to the similarity across a distance of decades and geography between essays by James Baldwin and Njabulo Ndebele, both of whom critiqued the “endless cataloguing” of writing that does not arrive at ordinary life, and obscures its complexity and intricate social processes. In contrast, they sought the receding authenticity of experience through the secrets of interiority and rich subjectivities. In her poetic presentation on poetry, Laetitia Zecchini reflects on Glissant’s poetics, his detours that articulate the tension between opacity and revelation.

In contrast, is the novel less and less the place where we can encounter the fullness, the dreams, the anxieties of the present? Garuba notes that the saturation of theory in literature and creative writing programmes at Universities has generated a circular and stifling pattern in which writers are responding to theory, are starting from theory instead of objects.

So where does the ordinary lie? In a time when the hunger for stories is almost unlimited, Mbembe observes, is the novel a home for stories? And in a country where illiteracy means that almost half of the population cannot access novels, where do such homeless stories go?

In Meg Samuelson’s review of the several beginnings and middles of South African literature, Mbembe found an acute reading of the country’s literary birth and trajectory, but an overrepresentation of Vladislavic and Coetzee in the present. Particularly of Coetzee, Mbembe asks, since he has moved on, why haven’t we? Why do we still speak about him so compulsively? Instead, he asks, what are Black South Africans writing about?

In the discussion, Zimitri Erasmus takes up this question in typically thoughtful manner. They are writing the ordinary, she asserts, and doing so by exploring the relation between critique and orality. And in this, we are not just South Africans, she muses. She notes softly and intriguingly, we have written journals for years, journals with intimate and abundant pages and many of these are not (yet) public.

I think through the primal scenes sketched in this literary panel and discussion. Our beginnings are multiple, and their aftermath has many strands. Black writers are claiming the intimate spaces of memoir, autobiography and creative non-fiction and through them are reshaping what might be said in public. South Africans are also producing fantasy, fairy tales, comedy, madness, doubt –stories that tell of a complicated ordinariness. I wonder, are we less ourselves because we are experimenting, betraying, reinventing the traditions that demand fealty of us and if we talk of things we shouldn’t?

Gabeba Baderoon is a poet and scholar. She teaches Women’s Studies and African Studies at Penn State University, and was a Research Fellow in the “Islam, African Publics and Religious Values” Project at the University of Cape Town in 2010-2011.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Locating the gift of justice in community courts

Juan Obbario at JWTC

“The gift is everywhere. The important element is justice and not gift”

(Juan Obbario, July 16th 2011)

In 1975 Mozambique saw the end of Portuguese colonial rule. Two years later, a civil war began and ended in the early 1990s. Post 1975 the country has seen a socialist regime. Most interesting for this piece is how both the civil law system and customary law characterize Mozambique’s legal system up to today. In rural areas the power of chiefs remains widespread. In urban areas the opposite is not necessarily in effect. It can be said that the distinction between rural and urban is abstract and mainly an administrative distinction, as these two areas are continuous. The recognition of custom and community is widespread and permeates in every realm of contemporary Mozambique. Defining community is similarly tricky as this notion is broad. So, what can be said of the space of a “community court”? Can we say such a space is really a court, when there are no ‘real judges’ present? Subsequently, how can justice be obtained in such a space, where (legal and social) boundaries are elusive?

Juan Obarrio’s ethnographic work in community courts in Northern Mozambique’s Nampula province is a refreshing attempt at bringing the law closer to home, so to speak. His fascination with the community courts dating from the socialist period raises a number of questions and debates on the practice of law, sociality and attaining justice. In his 2010 article published in Anthropological Theory[i] Obbario introduces the reader to a civil dispute, taking place in 1976 between two men over a woman. The dispute, which required the intervention of the local FRELIMO Secretary, became somewhat resolved “through a payment in kind”, an exchange of everyday necessities. In his understanding, the Secretary located conflict resolution within “local customs and sensibilities”, requiring an exchange of equivalences, which were rather arbitrarily determined. Referring to other similar civil disputes, such as a divorce matter between a couple (and family) and a case of adultery, Obarrio terms this exchange and resolve of offense interplay “the gift of justice”.

Where is justice, one may ask? And what does it mean for justice to be ‘measured’ in vegetables, grains and oils (as in the dispute referred to earlier)? And who benefits from this exchange? These questions remain unanswered in Obarrio’s explorations. However, Obarrio engaged us with the more theoretical underpinning of gift giving and gift-taking, and the implications of the gift in relation to justice, and matters of life. Using yet another concept, Obarrio introduced the “ban” in relation to matters of life and law. He used the ban as a concept that links the ordinary and the exception. The ban is seen as “double-bind” because it excludes and includes. He argued that the way law works in Mozambique is not as logic, but as ban. The law captures life, but there are also instances where life captures the law. This is all animated in the space of the people’s / community courts, institutions that turn life to “juridical matter: the object of competing jurisdictions and traditions.” We are still left in the dark about the gift as a concept. Is the gift also a dual category or dual concept as a practice of justice?

Let us return to the community court, an interesting space that amalgamates state law and customary law. The latter has the underpinnings of familial and ‘kinship’ rules and structures. This is seen in the constant recall and introduction of the maternal uncle as a form of moral authority, but also a figure whose presence is called upon to resolve a domestic dispute. The ‘judge’ is merely present as a mediator/ facilitator between families, as most disputes involve families, even where there were only two people presenting a dispute. The role of the uncle, though uninterrogated by Obarrio carries a significant responsibility and power. We are told that there is a “crucial relation of mutual obligation between a person and his or her maternal uncle”. It’s not only the uncle that matters, but that relatives too can influence decisions on their kin’s lives.

Instead of understanding the role and meaning of the maternal uncle figure in Mozambique sociability, Obarrio sees the “court as an uncle”, where law and familial structure fuse together. I am intrigued by this reference of the court, and the uncle’s equivalence to the court. Is this a way of seeing an extension of family relations or is it the extension of state’s law efforts? It is surprising that power structures (patriarchal and other) are not under scrutiny here, that the power of the state in matters civil is not problematized. Can the uncle, and thus the court, be objective? What is the role of the court then when it is ‘an uncle’?

We have to appreciate the manner in which Obbario’s explorations highlight the relationship between law and everyday life. Community courts make publicly visible what has remained predominantly in the private and intimate realm. Within the courts, intimate life (family and kinship) becomes publicized. Whether this becomes the “intimacy of the state” as Obarrio argues, is not so simple.

We are still unclear how different people experience justice, or whether any of the people in the courts attain justice. Similarly, this started out by stating that the rural and urban distinction in Mozambique is rather loose. We may wonder whether the experiences of justice in these two localities would be the same, and whether the notion of gift carries similar significance.

Zethu Matebeni, Wits University

[i] Obarrio, Juan. 2010. Beyond equivalence. The gift of justice in Mozambique (1976, 2004). Anthropological Theory, 10(1): 1-8.

On The Politics of Disaster

Adi Ophir at 2011 JWTC

“My final prayer: O my body, always make me a man who questions!”

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

In his talk, Adi Ophir asked us to consider the importance of scale and framing in identifying, assessing and responding to disaster as extraordinary. His challenge to rethink the easy division of human and natural acts poignantly bridged our guided bus tour of Johannesburg, Ann Stoler’s rumination on ruinations and Achille Mbembe’s reflection on ‘The Ordinary, the Event and the Accident’. As we passed beneath the shadows of many of the repurposed physical structures of the fallen Apartheid order, street signs and addresses reminded of the centrality of memory, truth and reconciliation to Post-Apartheid South Africa—as well as Apartheid’s ongoing role in structuring the ordinary order of things. This insistence on retaining the memory of what was once ordinary in what is now ordinary deliberately invokes a strange sense of historical scales of time and space. In the city of Johannesburg, and South Africa more broadly, we find sometimes strange and uncomfortable, yet hopeful meetings of times, spaces and people never as separate as some would like to think.

It seems counterintuitive to ask, ‘What, when and how is disaster extraordinary?’ for, as Ophir reminds, the extraordinary depends upon point-of-view, and disaster is always extraordinary for the victim. But to ask, ‘What, when and how is disaster?’, exposes disaster as both ordinary and extraordinary states of being structured by and dependent upon human action, as victims, actors and in-actors. To naively ascribe disaster to any nature (besides, perhaps, a deeply flawed human one) is to ignore the politics of framing and scale Ophir posits as so central to understandings of ordinary and extraordinary states of being. Further, to do so ignores the politics and human costs of the means and terms through which disaster is contained. For in converting extraordinary events into new configurations of ordinary states of being, human actors seek to best preserve certain distributions of ordinariness. Disaster, then, relies upon certain allocations of preventative and responsive resources as well as understandings of human worth.

Disaster represents a rupture in time and space that displaces the ordinary order of things, and is always partial, prejudiced and political in constitution and imagination. How, then, can we account for the distortions of spatial and temporal scale, framing and entanglement that are so foundational to the imagination, structuring, form and violences of ordinary life? Otherwise put, how, where and when does one begin to understand and critique the ways that human lives are imaginatively separated in time and space in order to privilege the ordinary comforts of some over the basic survival of others? ‘Disruption of everyday life,’ as Ophir puts it, remains disturbing to the victims and should create the same sense of disarray and rage even among those not affected. However, we all know too well that extraordinary events—unjust wars, genocides, apartheid to name just a few—are too often normalised and legalised. This is made possible in part, by ‘separating the victims’ point of view with that of the perpetrators and bystanders,’ Ophir explained.

The normalisation of disasters is a political matter. Depending on the political interests of those in power, certain events are deemed more important than others, i.e. extraordinary. 9/11 as Ophir suggested is one such event. The US has constantly insisted upon its extraordinariness and uniqueness for the past decade. This hyperbolic exaggeration justified the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as unleashed an entire discourse (the infamous ‘war on terror’), the pseudo search of so called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and many more destructive policies. The disaster and ‘disruption of everyday life’ lived by Afghans and Iraqis is not only undermined but perversely justified in the name of the victims of 9/11.

As those of us privileged enough to live, in different times and places, with the expectation of corporeal security as an ordinary state of being observe the explosions of rage broadcast (selectively and often difficultly) over the past days, months and years, the challenge is to better assess the costs of our ordinary comforts. Images from London, Tehran, Los Angeles, Cairo, Gaza, Soweto, Kingston and Paris, to name but a few, confirm that the ruptures we occasionally recognise as extraordinary disaster constantly surround us in our ordinary states. What is extraordinary, it seems, is the rarity and unevenness with which the constant distribution of extraordinary burden is recognised. As so many struggle to shrug off the shadows and ruinations of imperial violence, it is imperative that we recognise disaster’s thriving lifelines around us, casting its shadows from and upon the structures, institutions and modes of thought we ordinarily call home.

Ophir is certainly right in alerting us to the politicisation of disasters and the inequalities political ideology perpetuate. Nonetheless, extraordinariness and ordinariness are too often, as previously mentioned, facets of the same catastrophic events. Sections of Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia, writing on life in the township of Kathelong, illustrate this point brilliantly. ‘What does it mean to say that black life under apartheid was not all doom and gloom?’ Dlamini asks. ‘Only lazy thinkers would take’ such a question ‘to mean support for apartheid. Apartheid was without virtue’ (Dlamini, 15). Dlamini’s narrative troubles the neat boundaries between ordinariness and extraordinariness and underlines the messiness of both terms. How can one theorise about the ordinariness of an extraordinary event without underestimating its exceptional nature? How do we account for the mundaneness within the extraordinary?

‘Genocides too have their ordinary aspects,’ Ophir reminded us. That is, even under the most catastrophic, gruesome circumstances—Apartheid, genocides, war—people still manage to carve out some form of life. They hold on to and form anew their aspirations, values, and morals. They do the most ordinary things: laugh, live, cry, mourn etc. Such ordinary aspects of disasters are too often dismissed for a focus on the dramatic sensational features of disasters. This has several shortcomings, the first and most problematic one being the transformation of victims into hapless passive beings in need of saviours. Second is the parallel transformation of lived realities into uncomplicated meta-narratives bereft of the political, social and historical circumstances that, together, labor to constitute and enact these sharp strikes of disaster. Ophir’s discussion, as well as the theme of this year’s workshop, Ordinary States, States of Ordinariness, brought these challenges to the fore. The ordinary and the extraordinary are always intimately entangled. Hasty dichotomisation not only misses such crucial point but risk perpetuating what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the ‘danger of a single story,’ a single story which unfortunately almost always loses sight of and/or avoids larger historical, structural, political factors.

Natacha Nsabimana, PhD Student, Anthropology, Columbia University and

Andrew E. Dowe, PhD Student, Student, African American Studies, American Studies, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Yale University

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Power with TEETH: Neoliberalism(?) as Ruination and containment of the Black Catastrophe

Achille Mbembe presenting

I begin with a disclaimer. I will not attempt to summarize any lecture here. Rather, I will run with threads from a couple of lectures. Specifically, I want here to continue the discussion that was generated by Achille Mbembe’s lecture, “The Ordinary, The Event, and the Accident”. Mbembe began his talk by returning to the lectures of the previous day. First, he endorses Stoler’s suggestion that we need to sharpen our senses in tracking the tangibilities of empire. For Mbembe, the tangible is not only that which is capable of being perceived. And thus he encouraged us to think about touch. This was, of course, also a way to problematize Western metaphysics privileging of the optic.

Engaging Aristotle’s exploration of touch, Mbembe suggested, if I recall correctly, that for Aristotle, to touch the limit and to touch at the limit are not the same thing. From Aristotle we moved to Derrida’s discussion of tangibility as always intimately connected to striking and stroking.

This discussion of tangibility and touch facilitated Mbembe’s move to recall that an important element of power is teeth. Thinking about touch also meant that we need to always consider, as Mbembe elaborated, that imperial power is a power of tactility where sight is accompanied by a need to touch, hence the importance of teeth. This was then interwoven with some insights from Adi Ophir’s lecture. However, since others will blog on this lecture, I will not engage it further, except to say that Mbembe took up the concern with catastrophe in his own lecture.

Indeed Mbembe wanted us all to reflect on tangibility and catastrophe. For example, at one point Mbembe asked something that went like this: “what if we ask how does the ordinary become the extraordinary?” This, maybe, was part of his move to entice the participants in the workshop to think about how we are to get out of the Schmittian cage.

Maybe part of such a strategy required that we contemplate how and why the idea of the divine, in various forms of monotheism, share terror as its vital force. I was reminded immediately of Ayi Kwei Armah’s contention that the claimed monopoly on spiritual power is the root of terrorism. For Mbembe, there is an idea of terror embedded in the idea of one God and this is based on catastrophe. This is so because redemption requires catastrophe.

Thus we continued our reflection on tangibility and catastrophe. Mbembe took us on an engagement with Bloke Modisane and Frantz Fanon. Mbembe argued that suffering had a particularly important place in black critical thought. What is significant about this place of suffering is that it is joined with critique as witnessing. Thus, critical Black thought uses writing as a way to effect disruption. It is done in a way to shift perspective so one may reflect critically on life. In his reading of Modisane, Mbembe finds a most convincing interlocutor of Fanon; even more than Steve Biko.

When Mbembe turns to Fanon it is to explore how the latter approaches decolonization as a form of disentanglement. Mbembe points out that Fanon is interested in figuring out and articulating an ethics of struggle that enables one to be free from race.

It is an understatement to say that Mbembe’s lecture generated considerable interest. The participants in the workshop were mesmerized by his presentation. In the discussion period that followed, one topic that generated considerable interest was Mbembe’s reading of Fanon, a reading that made the reclaiming of personhood or self-possession fundamentally important. At least 4 speakers expressed angst at the notion of a self-possessed individual being an important move for any emancipatory project. Bluntly put, it sounded like a desire to get beyond race without going through race. What I experienced as “depoliticization” continued for a while before a crucial intervention was made. Why depoliticization? Mbembe’s engagement with Fanon parallels the (re)turn of contemporary social movements in South Africa to Fanon (and Biko). Thus an interesting space to think “theory from the South” was being opened up. However, the line of questioning and comments seemed to defang the political significance of Fanon’s (and Modisane’s) thinking for the contemporary moment. Thus, the title of this blog; I want to bring some of the political implications to the fore.

First, “power with TEETH” is meant as a reminder that even if a focus on teeth can not capture all there is to power (one participant queried the notion of power with teeth), it is totally inadequate and definitely deadly to minimize (if inadvertently) the fact that Black bodies continue to have a special tactility that is made to attract TEETH. That is to say, Black bodies remain “the” fundamental target for ruination. Second, the question mark after “neoliberalism” is meant to question immediately if that term is sufficient. Put differently, does neoliberal understood as a specific political rationality sufficiently grapple with white supremacy/ anti-Black racism? So I want to pose two questions here: (1) does neoliberalism, if it fails to take white supremacy as a fundamental axis of power work to contain (in the negative sense) the production of genealogies and other analyses of the ruination of Black life? And (2) does neoliberalism enable us to think about ruination, as an ongoing process, that produces and contains Black life as non-life and thus works to constitute life (i.e.,“white”?)? And following from the previous question, by “Black Catastrophe,” I mean to say that Black life is ontologically a catastrophe. Black life is a life that is not quite a life. This is one reason why decolonizing critical theory is so important. The knee jerk responses (I only recall one intervention explicitly stating that one must be careful here) to the claim for self-possession and for reclaiming the self-possessed individual, makes legible the limits of Western theory. That is, we see the limits of Western theory most clearly when confronted with the Black subject(?); a subject who is never quite a subject. A subject whose very condition maybe something beyond Butler’s notion of precarity. To extend Fanon’s insights, the Black body is overdetermined from without for death, which is also its ontological state.

And this brings me to the other lecture I wish to briefly engage: Neville Hoad’s paper. My understanding of this paper is that it argues that a serious engagement with the affective and the body could potentially open up new ways of thinking about human rights. It seems that Hoad is grappling with why human rights discourse(s) needs ordinary violence to become extraordinary. Hoad pursues his project by engaging the story of Roger Casement. Specifically, he is interested in Casement, who while working for the British government, helped expose the crimes against humanity in the King Leopold II controlled so-called Congo Free State. It is in his “white diary” that Casement records many of the atrocities that he observes. Hoad, however, is also interested in Casement’s “Black Diary,” where he recalled his sexual exploits and revealed an uncanny impulse to measure. If I follow his argument correctly, Hoad suggests that thinking about/through Casement’s humanitarian work and his sexual practices together provides an important space to (re)engage with human rights. Casement apparently had sex with Congolese men. Although he never names these men, he kept detailed measurements of their penises. As I understand it, for Hoad, Casement’s sexual encounters can be understood, at least partially, through a notion of reciprocity. It seems that Hoad is suggesting that Casement can be understood as reconstituting the “part-object.” Apparently, this is where the redemptive possibilities can be located. There is something here. Yet, it is a very risky move.

The risk paid off. The paper was accorded an overwhelmingly warm reception. I was intrigued by this. Like a participant who sought to problematize taking the so-called Congo Free State as a site for locating human rights, I was a bit cautious of the theoretical move suggested in the paper. Fanon has already thought us that some bodies are already “object(s) in the midst of other objects.” It seemed, for example, as if by paying more than “market price,” “twelve times the cost of his hotel” for the penis that he desired Casement was giving a gift, he was participating in a reciprocal relationship that sought not to dismember.

A number of questions must be asked: does being a “bottom” prevent Casement from being implicated in imperial violence? Can a “bottom’s” bottom not rape? Is there a fundamental difference between Leopold’s collection of the arms of African people in the so-called Congo Free State and Casement’s collection of Black penises? Is there no violence here because the “Congolese” men/Black men are nothing? To be clear, my argument is not that gay sex leads to Black death. Rather, I suggest that given the genocidal context in which Casement procures his sexual encounters, we are required to query more carefully the precise conditions of possibility for Casement’s structure of desires and their fulfillment. Can the most generous reading of Casement’s sexual desires and practices disentangle them from the structural violence in which they are embedded? It may be necessary to follow Sadiya Hartman’s lead and not lose sight of how “enjoyment” itself can be imbricated with subjugation.

What are we to do when an “innovative” analytical/theoretical move necessitates the dismemberment and collection of black penises, i.e., Black death? In other words, how is it that the reproduction of the Black Catastrophe could so easily be reinscribed (along with the necessary caveat recognizing the problem of the pornographic gaze) and receive much more praise than critique? Are we to embrace the possibility of vitalizing human rights discourse(s) by the sanction/reproduction of Black Catastrophe? What if the structure of desire that animates this affective turn is also a structure of destruction? What does it mean to embrace (however tentatively) an affective turn that imagines it self as opening a “new” or “different” place to energize human rights that is predicated on the cannibalizing of Black bodies?

Alas, we are reminded that the Black body is always already a Catastrophe and is repeatedly made to entice ongoing ruination. It maybe that at the nexus of capitalist imperialism and white supremacy we find the working of witchcraft that constitutes and is constituted by a specific fetish: the Black--not quite human life--ruined object--wreckable commodity.

Thus we can grasp why Fanon had to claim self-ownership and why dismissing this claim today is likely to portend continued Black death. If his remains the most prescient analysis of what it means to be life that is not-quite human, of structural nothingness and the violence that produces it, then Fanon maybe the, and certainly is a, foundational theorist for “thinking theory from the South.”

But what that may mean remains an open and “messy” question. Still, we have important leads having engaged some of the crucial themes: ruination, neoliberalism, catastrophe, wrecked objects, and precarity. This may mean that more than ever we are compelled to face power in its myriad forms, especially power with TEETH as the violent structuring of abjection persists and intensifies.

C.A.K. Uzondu