Tuesday, May 3, 2011

At the Origins of The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism - Personal Recollections (2)

We decided to set up The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC) during the Fall of 2008, in the aftermath of the July Workshop on “Future Tense”.

The Working Group out of which the JWTC sprung having operated under the auspices of WISER, some of us had thought that the new initiative would also operate under the auspices of the same institution, but in an extended inter- or across-Faculty collaborative framework.

This scenario did not materialize. We then examined (and rejected) the possibility of creating an entirely independent entity associated with the University, but with its own legal identity. At the end, after securing the support of the Dean of the Humanities and the VC’s Office, we opted for an interdisciplinary, collaborative Platform within the Faculty of the Humanities.

We wanted the JWTC to be an “intervention”, a mobilizing network rather than a conventional “institution” in the manner of a “Center” or an “Institute”.

We saw the JWTC as a loosely structured “Platform” where thematically-oriented collaborative work would bring together, beyond any particular discipline, a group of young and established scholars to initiate Southern-based, international projects greater in form, scope, depth, or complexity than any individual could undertake himself or herself.

A lot of thinking and consultations with international colleagues had gone into crafting the “intervention”. We set the JWTC up in response to a set of local and global trends and challenges we thought were emerging in the field of the humanities in general, and in terms of the relationship between “critique” and “institutions” in particular.

The global intellectual map was being redrawn. Besides traditional Northern Atlantic institutions, new centers of learning were being established in places such as the Persian Gulf, China, India or Latin America. Symposia, independent media, art shows, book fairs, film festivals and other hallmarks of intellectual life were gradually transforming entire regions of the planet.

The scholarly community was becoming more internationalized. Western-born academics were moving to other parts of the world in growing numbers while Southern born ones were filling many faculties and departments in Northern universities. In the social sciences and the humanities, the worldwide dissemination of thought had been buttressed by a worldwide circulation and translation of texts, a highly productive invention and re-appropriation of concepts and the de-nationalization of the great academic debates.

Yet, a fragmented and uneven distribution of the resources for learning, teaching and cultural criticism persisted. Huge disparities in research and funding capacities and in institutional and pedagogical innovations still pervaded North-South relations, derailing in the process the project of genuine “global humanities”. Marginal regions of the world were still producers of data and test sites for the theory mills of the North. Although it had been for the most part de-territorialized and many of its key concepts had been de-nationalized, displaced and reconstructed sometimes with surprising effects, theory itself was still seen as naturally metropolitan and Western.

In South Africa, the end of Apartheid had seen major shifts in the demand, production, supply and dissemination of knowledge. We had witnessed a surge in problem-oriented, context-specific research that relied on a thin notion of relevance”. Among donor agencies, there was a strong drive to shift funds away from scholarly endeavour towards organizations oriented to direct, practical action. Yet, the popularization of problem-oriented research had not resulted in as big an improvement of knowledge as might have been expected. Because of a profound disregard for theory and conceptualization, this kind of research was leading to the generation and repetition of ill-formed ideas, very poorly theorized and often with substantial negative implications for policy and practice. This translated into an implicit view of our region as a residual entity, the study of which did not contribute anything to the knowledge of the world or of the human condition in general.

It appeared to us that these challenges could no longer be confronted from within the traditional paradigms that relied on a strict North-South dichotomy. More often than not, the effect of such dichotomy had been to police thought by rendering it subservient to identity politics rather than to create the conditions for actually thinking.

Instead of endlessly re-enacting the ideological battles of the past, what was needed was to take full advantage of the new age of academic mobility and the renewed convergence of theory and civic activism worldwide to give expression to the variety of human forms in which argumentation occurs, contributing therefore to the global movement towards genuine global intellectual citizenship. The fractures within the world of global scholarship could not be vainquished through the re-enactment of old ghettos. We needed to create new nodes, facilitate the emergence of new connections and linkages, exercise our own intellectual power confidently, bring scholars together around intellectual propositions we would define in full autonomy.

Achille Mbembe