Thursday, July 26, 2012

Prospecting autonomy, extracting authenticity?

Carlos Crespo present
Phillip Rousseau comments on Carlos Crespo’s “Statalization and Commodification of Natural Resources and Social Resistances under the Morales Government”.
Carlos Crespo’s public lecture focused on the long history of destruction of the commons by the centripetal forces of the Bolivian State. From 19th century laws of expropriation, to State led mining and oil extraction in indigenous territories in the 20th century, the richly detailed presentation offered a clear view of the renewable waves of statalization and commodification of natural resources. The historical overview culminated in the presentation of contemporary processes of resource extraction in Bolivia and recent indigenous strategies of resistance to them.
Autonomy was a persistent theme in Carlos’ presentation. His explicit call for a politics of autonomy to counter Bolivian statism was especially eloquent in his presentation of the two main strategies of indigenous resistance to State and Capital expansion. The gist of Carlos’ argument was that, historically, indigenous struggles have been for autonomy and not just efforts to obtain rights of citizenship from the State (and therefore not just asking for more dependence/recognition). The two main strategies adopted by indigenous populations presented were the following:
1)          Reciprocity as contractual negotiations of rights and duties between State and indigenous communities;
2)          Refuge from territorial expansion of State and Capital, a strategy becoming more and more difficult in the face of the intense mapping out of the Bolivian territory.
If, for Carlos, both strategies enable some form or another of political autonomy, refuge seemed to win his favor for its less conciliatory perspective.[1] Although one can certainly understand the strategy of avoidance in this case, how to articulate these practices to anything resembling a “common” certainly becomes a highly critical issue. Political autonomy can certainly lead to forms of appropriation that might be quite challenging to communal efforts wishing to go beyond institutionalized political divisions.
The main thrust of what follows is that, contrary to Carlos’ appeal, the concept of autonomy, albeit necessary, seems more ambiguous to me then he suggested in his talk. This deserves scrutiny since efforts we’re made to contrast this concept from what he called “ideal concepts” like human rights, sustainable development, social participation, etc. These abstract concepts, Carlos suggested, contrary to immanent practices, lack the capacity to galvanize social cohesion and counter commodification.[2] They cannot do so, since they are based on a “rights” discourse that is mostly individualistic.
Autonomy has everything to do with a will to extract oneself from easy equivalences, abstractness, interchangeability, loss of specificity, etc. State, Capital and the social sciences are particularly well equipped for quick standardization and determinist accounts lacking historical agency. In the case of indigenous populations, and as the two strategies have shown, autonomy stands as an attempt to circumvent, partly at least, the standardizing processes that inevitably comes with State citizenship and ownership.  
Yet, autonomy can play itself out on many (political) scales: individual, local, regional, State or global level. The State, for many – whether they are right or wrong – is an apparatus that might give a certain political leveraging to those concerned (I come from a Canadian province that sometimes likes to think so). Others might prefer to find this autonomy at the local or even individual level against the State – again, for better or worst.
Let’s zoom in on the individual level for a second. We should not forget here that the rights discourse is precisely a philosophical offspring of modernist moral philosophy (amongst other things). In other words, self-law, self-government, self-rule we’re all concepts deriving from an attempt at designing responsible and autonomous individuals (or groups of) against fatalism and determinism. It was an attempt at giving autonomous “free will” a practical traction in daily lives. This, of course, has not necessary lead to autonomous forms-of-life, but abstract and standardized legal codification with which comes the good, the bad and the ugly (and certain forms of social cohesion). Yet, this example shows us that the politics of autonomy are not so easily distinguishable from rights as was suggested in the lecture. One could argue that autonomy is precisely at the heart of a rights based approach.
Let’s continue with my very crude analogy with the design of the modernist autonomous subject who is constantly asked to know thy self and act accordingly to her/his true conscience. In other words, autonomy can imply being true to oneself, the “authentic self,” its needs, desires and aspirations (constantly riveting us to us or me to me). This reeks of authenticity speak and I’m a bit worried that this underlying link between autonomy and authenticity might be replayed on other scales then the individual one (which has already shown the incredible levels of toxicity it can reach).
This becomes even more troublesome if autonomy is weaved together with ideals about social cohesion (as it seemed to be the case in Carlos’ presentation). What social cohesion are we talking about here exactly? Who is to determine and apply the necessary criteria? Is social cohesion to be linked with “authentic” ways of life?
I am not implying here that the indigenous strategies in Bolivia are for these reasons reprehensible, inefficient or morally skewed, my point is that the concept of autonomy used to qualify them tends to become an abstraction in itself if it does not take into account its own political and historical ambiguities. Exactly what Carlos rightly tried to demystify during his important contribution to the workshop.
One last comment regarding the lecture: Carlos’ strategy depended on historical continuity – the “long view” as he called it – to read through the Bolivian case. A necessary strategy, of course, that was executed with the hand of a maestro. The one issue I might have with this type of narrative is that you end with the impression that you simply have different historical reactions, by State or locals, to the same capitalism. It therefore tends to dehistoricize capitalism as an immutable outside by concentrating on localized practices. Supplementing the Bolivian case with the changing processes of Capital might offer interesting analytical and political possibilities.
This is a tough nut to crack for sure, but one that might enable autonomy to become a much more commonly shared practice working against some of its own ambiguous impulses.
Phillip Rousseau

[1]       This links his efforts to the works of Pierre Clastres and James Scott. In his classic work, La Société contre l’État (1974), Clastres argued that where some tend to presuppose a lack of State formation in “primitive” societies, one instead could find strategies of avoidance to it. Carlos’ argument is based on a similar logic: indigenous populations do not necessarily aim at being recognized by the State, but are actively trying to dodge its expansive grip.
[2]         (making wonder if “commons” is also an ambiguous ideal concept)

Theory - north south and between

Kerry Chance, from Harvard University, attended the 2012 Session of the JWTC. She speaks to The Blog.
What in your view distinguishes ‘theory’ from Harvard and ‘theory’ from Johannesburg?

As I understand it, the proposition of the Johannesburg Workshop, among other things, is to read and produce contemporary theory from ‘the South,’ and thereby also to make visible the potential parochialisms of ‘the North.’ Having lived and worked in South Africa for over a decade, my approach to theory has been profoundly shaped by life and thought emanating from here. As anthropologists and scholars of Post-colonial and African Studies have argued for some time, our vantage in the world has a bearing on the kinds of questions we ask of theory, and how we think theory vis-à-vis the Western canon. So, while it is important not to lose sight of this proposition, the lines between ‘North’ and ‘South’ often are not so easily drawn. With regard to recent housing evictions in Johannesburg and Chicago, for instance, we might see more connections between Soweto and Chicago’s Cabrini Green than Sandton or Chicago’s Northside. In other words, we should not overlook emerging global relations and processes that suggest how ‘North’ and ‘South’ can be seen as multiple and beyond any simple dichotomy. In this vein, having spent the last year at Harvard, I can say that it is a place where African Studies is being taken seriously. There also are many academics, students, research projects, initiatives and student organizations that are ‘thinking from the South’ in important ways.

Why would a scholar from Harvard or Chicago want to join a theory event taking place in Johannesburg?

I would encourage scholars from Harvard or Chicago to take part in the Johannesburg Workshop. Aside from the reasons I just mentioned, the Workshop produces a space to think broadly and intensively about theory across disciplines and with scholars from across the globe. As corporate logics increasingly structure the aims of universities, such spaces are increasingly hard to find. In the American academy, amid ongoing financial crisis and a shrinking job market, so much of academic work, especially by young scholars, is oriented toward individual professional development, which limits the horizon of theory. Colleagues in the South African academy also note decreasing job security, and increasing managerialism. The Workshop, by contrast, is a space where the idea of ‘the university’ is alive and well, and being reclaimed under current conditions.

From your point of view, how do platforms such as The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism may contribute to a reformulation for what stands for international scholarship today?

Again, for all the reasons I just mentioned, it produces a space that challenges us to rethink what ‘the university’ might look like in the twenty-first century, both in theory and practice.

You presented a paper on the politics of fire in the Anthropology Department at Wits. In the communities you are studying, do you see any relationship between the politics of fire and the politics of nature?

My approach to studying the politics of fire, I hope, has broader methodological and theoretical applications to studying other aspects of the natural world. The paper examines the political meanings of fire amongst residents of townships and shack settlements in post-apartheid South Africa. I argue that fire – inside the home as a hazardous source of light and heat, or on the streets to signal revolt – expresses a grammar of everyday practices and interactions between residents and state officials. Where residents posit the state’s failure to provide formal housing and services as the cause of routine slum conflagrations and street protests, officials posit a new criminal type amongst ‘the poor.’ These practices and interactions have given rise to disputes in South African public discourse over the legitimate demarcations between crime and politics under liberal democratic conditions. In contrast to Claude Levi-Strauss’ contention that fire signals man’s mastery over nature, I argue that fire signals the fragility of the “synthetic tether” that binds a territory, population and rule in modern states.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Territorial legacies and criminalised indigenous technologies

Maano Ramutsindela presents

A response to the presentation by Maano Ramutsindela and Clapperton Mavhunga. Understandings of “nature” are probably the most ideological and perhaps romantic in the making and utilising of nature parks in Africa. The “naturalness” that wildlife parks in Africa seem to suggest was dismantled with the presentations delivered at the lecture, “People and Parks”. Maano Ramutsindela introduced the political motivations behind demarcating parks in Africa and Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga shared his research on the knowledge resources of the people living adjacent to the Makuleke Park (the northern part of the Kruger National Park).
Maano’s historical reading of conservation parks in Southern Africa suggested that establishing wildlife parks was part of the colonial making of Africa. In the “scramble” for power over nature, wildlife was seen as private property to be acclaimed and controlled from extensive hunting practices. Conservation in Africa also mirrored the colonial political climate: the 1933 London Convention, which permanently determined the boundaries of nature parks and the ideological imprint of conservation in Africa, was reminiscent of the 1884 Berlin Conference. The project of extending colonial power through wildlife parks displaced local people and criminalised traditional hunting practices. The fences, gates, rangers and guns that identified and protected the boundaries of wildlife parks, policed a separation between humans and nature. This separation captured the territorial mapping of parks in Africa, and produced a legacy that continues to determine the borders of nature parks today. My own research on an urban park in Cape Town studies this legacy and finds it not in the form of physical fences, but in borders of the mind: boundaries inscribed by the historical fabrication of a metropolitan nature and contemporary conservation practices.
With Africa’s struggle for independence, conservationists (especially the ICUN) responded to the new political climate that “endangered” the future of nature parks. During this period, outside funding for conservation increased and the Arusha Conference in 1961 was about selling the “conservationist idea” to the new African leaders to create postcolonial parks (“a special re-territorialisation project of the South”). The political and conservation convergence in shaping the future of nature parks in Southern Africa is a trajectory most explicitly illustrated by the foundation of Transfrontier Conservation Areas (or “Peace Parks”) in the 1990’s by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and South African Billionaire Anton Rupert. Amongst other meetings with aspiring African leaders, Rupert and the Prince met with Nelson Mandela who declared Peace Parks as shaping the image of Africa as one of “peace and solidarity”. This mapping of nature parks on the African continent – irrespective of local worlds or national boundaries – continues with the current drive to establish a new Peace Park between Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana. Peace Parks intends to promote “tourism flows” between nations and to re-establish ecological integrity by allowing animals to have multiple nationalities. This African wilderness image irons over local understandings of nature and the landscape, politics, poverty, ecological disasters and social conflicts to create an unhindered idyllic natural space for tourists and wildlife funding. The critical question remains what this colonial wildlife legacy means to the locals in their everyday lives. What are the historical utilisations of proclaimed parks, and what does uncovering these knowledge resources mean for postcolonial conservation.
On this point, Clapperton’s presentation shared with us reports from the Makuleke region that detailed the “ways of knowing” around the forest and bush, to consider “technology” outside of the Western scientific canon. To me, he suggested that the local technologies by which the animal is trekked, and the registry of fruits and plants eaten for sickness and health, are indigenous sciences, not recognised in their own right. The forest was a “reservoir for all illnesses, including hunger” (Mavhunga). Boys were skilled in making poison, the dog was neither friend nor enemy, but a trained technology and partner in the hunting process, trekking and finding animals were skills that preceded and proceeded bulleting the target. These knowledge resources and technologies were criminalised by the poaching/illegal harvesting discourse mobilised by conservationists; rendering traditional hunters into poachers.
Yet, the danger in “recovering” these local sights of knowledge lies in failing to recognise its “elastic” and adaptable nature, and perpetuating the “native in nature” stereotype. The biography of things – like the gun – narrates a movement from the global into the local, where it was actively sought after and appropriated, as Makuleke was appropriated by it. To sustain the gun’s utility, ironsmiths made bullets from bat droppings and networks of travelling gunpowder emerged. The weapon also morphed into the cultural context of its locality: technology was part of religion, faith and the process of becoming a man.
What brought the two presentations together were questions of power and knowledge in the space of conservation. Maano presented the political figures behind the territorial mapping of nature parks in Southern Africa, while Clapperton presented the local knowledge resources criminalised or denied by these power demarcations. The result was a mapping from above that mimicked older colonial habits and a mapping from below that traced local technologies. The discrepancy remains within the gap between the power involved in the former mapmaking process and the criminalisation involved in the latter.

Janie Swanepoel

Insects and Incisions

Clapperton Mavhunga presents
 For me Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga’s talk, ‘How did African sciences and technologies shape colonial science and technology of nature?’ re-inserted critical considerations of the ‘past’, of the historical imagination and the power of historical specificity in our engagements with questions on the ‘Futures of Nature’ and nonhuman agencies. Way overdue in discussions about ‘nature’ within postcolonial settings is the need to move past uncomplicated and simple framings of epistemological differences along categories such as ‘the West’, ‘African’ or ‘Indigenous’ and to begin to theorize from a more situated epistemological position.  If one takes seriously the agency of nonhumans as co-constituents of the historicity and materiality of the everyday and thus as agents in how people come to know and be – what are the implications of this in thinking about the colonial encounter in terms of ontology?
Clapperton’s talk explored this to some extent by looking at the material and social realities in which so-called “Western” science and technology took form. In doing so, he brought our attention to those ‘entangled knowledges’ and the manner in which practices of knowledge production are always embodied, emplaced and situated within very specific ‘geometries of power’ and ‘cultural topographies’. To illustrate this Clapperton took a somewhat unconventional approach - reading the colonial encounter and archive in southern Africa through tracing the ways in which the ‘Tsetse Fly’ came to be constituted or known and the multiple techniques that emerged in response to its existence, forms of mobility and power. By focusing on the history of the Tsetse Fly, Clapperton’s talk subverted more dominant historical narratives that read colonialism as the brutal and subtle imposition of Western ways of knowing on indigenous ways of knowing and the subsequent creative appropriation of or resistances to those Western science and technology by Africans. Instead Clapperton showed that much of colonial science and technology in this territory emerged from and were produced by appropriating already existing African sciences and technologies and subsuming them into a ‘Western’ episteme.
Clapperton’s talk eloquently and somewhat ironically showed how a tiny insect – the Tsetse Fly - was deeply implicated in the co-production of the history of mobilities and thus colonialism,  and the patterns of migration and settlement in the then Rhodesia. By focusing on tracing the mobilities of this particular agent – the Tsetse Fly – within the context an imperial project of re-territorialization, Clapperton showed how certain ontological categories or framings of “nature” and the ‘Other’ came to be - ways of knowing that which is imposing, strange, threatening, or untameable. Within this historical moment an specific ‘ontology of pesthood’ emerged premised on a certain way of knowing, perceiving and representing and engaging ‘Others’ – both human and nonhuman –who exhibits certain characteristic mobilities or who come into or settle in a territory or space to which one has made a certain claim to.
There is much in stake in postcolonial Africa when one writes and performs history from a ‘register more accommodating of agency’ – as Clapperton phrased it – not just human but also nonhuman agency. In considering nonhuman agencies as key actants in the shaping and making of the colonial encounter and the frontier, a more heterogeneous narrative might emerge. In such narratives representations of colonial power can be subverted by or be intimately related to the agency of nonhumans – such as the Tsetse Fly. Thus, these narratives can begin to destabilize our imaginings of the distribution of power and agency in the making of material and social realities. Such narratives may also be able to resonate more with the kind of “popular epistemologies” Nyamnyoh (2001) or ‘situated knowledges’ (Haraway) that inform everyday lives of people in different African contexts. Many African scholars such as Francis Nyamnyoh (writing on Cameroom) and Achille Mbembe (in his talk on equatorial Africa), as well as writers such as Ben Okri –have showed that the kind of epistemologies that inform the everyday of many people within different African ‘lifeworlds’ do not rely on a priori boundaries between the invisible and the visible, the animate and inanimate, between subject and object, and between so-called culture and nature. Rather there exists a “deep interconnection between different levels of the real” (Mbembe) – a real which is always emergent and populated by a multiplicity of beings – both human and nonhuman – whose agencies are situated within vernacular framings of power.
For Clapperton, more heterogeneous narratives can also enable a move away from over-determined stories of victimization, which erases the ingenuity and resistances of colonized peoples and enables an opening up of the multitude of ways in which the colonial encounter - as a dialectical process – led to different forms of entanglements and appropriation. And rather than feeding into imperial and colonial representations of Africans as being held ‘captive’ by and being bounded to ‘nature’; Clapperton rather facilitated a representation of pre-colonial Africa as a space of innovation and design and liberation struggles as sites that brought together different ways of knowing in creative, eclectic, unpredictable but also very violent ways.
By tracing the ways in which human and nonhuman mobilities and processes of re-territorialisation and settlement in the colonies gave rise to particular ways of being and knowing; Clapperton was able to show how so-called ‘Western’ epistemological practices have been shaped by multiple configurations of ‘natures/culture’ as they were continuously made and unmade within the context of southern Africa during the colonial regime. Thus, ‘Western’ science and technology, despite its own universalizing and neutral claims are just as contingent upon specific spatial-temporal relationalities as any other form of knowing. Such historical incisions into the powerful exterior of ‘Western’ knowledge are an unsure project, but one that will at least lead to some leakages and experimental flows and has implications for current theorizing about what it means to know within the postcolony.
Elsemi Olwage

Social ecologies

JWTC spoke to Elsemi Olwage, social anthropology student at the University of Cape Town, about her experience of the workshop this year.

You attended your first session of the JWTC. How did you hear about the JWTC and what are the reasons that led you to apply to the 2012 Session?

I attended a panel discussion hosted by the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA) titled ‘Futures of Nature/Facts that Matter’ earlier this year in Cape Town, chaired by Sarah Nuttall. This panel was organized in collaboration with JWTC. After visiting the JWTC website and realising that this year’s programme was structured around a similar theme, I decided to apply as my own research interests’ lie very much within the debates of environmental anthropology and public culture in Africa.

The workshop was also recommended to me by another student and friend of mine working in a similar direction. The main reason that I applied for this 2012 Session was in the hope of developing a more critical and creative theoretical base to deal with questions about ‘nature’ – especially in relation to knowledge practices and politics within postcolonial settings. I was also fascinated by the ways in which the 2012 Session was planning to bring both the sciences and the arts into a space of engagement and conversation.

What are the events in this year's program that you enjoyed the most and why?

I really enjoyed the ways in which participants were enticed and encouraged to literally think through the historically layered and fragmented composition of Johannesburg in order to engage with the multiple ways in which ‘nature’ has been transformed, imagined and lived and to consider both the historicity and materiality of shifting political economies. For example the bus tour of the city on the first day consisted of going through various “invisible” spaces (such as those below the surface) and exploring those spaces at the edges and interstices of the city. Bettina Malcomess’ performative and installation piece on ‘Uitvalgrond’ or ‘surplus ground’ during this tour was one of my favourite events. It performed – in a very surreal and visceral way – the ways in which ‘natural’ spaces between the built environment are often seen as de-politicized and empty – where as in actuality, as Bettina pointed out, they can be seen to be “located at the intersection of several trajectories in the history of the city’s development”. Both the tour of the mine and Bettina’s piece really engaged with the tensions between the palimpsest nature of landscapes and modern commercial developments with their tendency towards erasure, spectacle and a kind of recycling or commoditization of temporalities.

I also appreciated and enjoyed the ways in which the workshop engaged with the arts - as a key conversant on complex issues such as climate change and the extractive and exploitative practices of the global capitalist-driven economy. The exhibition on the Niger Delta was very striking for its interesting commentary on authenticity. But it is hard to pin- point individual events – rather it was the careful crafting of putting together such a complementary and thought-provoking programme.

For my own research purposes, I enjoyed the events or talks that led to discussions on alternative epistemologies (Achille Mbembe) and what it means to ‘write from the South’ or rethinking the practice of the sciences in the so-called postcolony. I believe these kinds of arguments are crucial if we want to understand the kind of politics and knowledges needed to engage with global debates on climate change and to offer a more rooted critique of neoliberal economies as they take on different forms in different places.

Can you tell us about the interactions between South African participants and the other participants who came from abroad?

I think there is nothing better than to encounter scholars, activists, and artists from different parts of the world. It was really inspiring and productive to get to know the different projects people are involved with and in seeing the ways in which those projects resonate with your own. People were pretty open to each other and it wasn’t only theoretical arguments that animated conversations but also much joking and the sharing of stories and commentary.

The many times of eating great and varied food, going out for drinks, and dancing – I think – really encouraged a kind of atmosphere of conviviality and enabled us to really make connections in different ways. I did not really perceive much of a difference between participants from South Africa and other participants in terms of the interactions between everyone.

What, in your view, is the importance of 'theory' for young researchers?

As a student of anthropology I believe that there is much value in trying to theorize from within and through the kind of emerging socio-material and political realities in which your project of knowledge production is situated and to acknowledge the collective and political work that goes into doing that.

Theory for me is a way of imagining, of grappling and of coming to know that enables me to make connections that previously weren’t there before. It forces me to question anew those realities that I take for granted. It has implications for how I imagine the contours of difference that give form to the everyday and for the kind of political subjectivity I wish to nurture.

I think on the one hand theory for young researchers should be seen as bodies of knowledge that one needs to be in conversation with – but one should always remain reflexive and critical about the kind of epistemological traditions from which it has emerged and the kind of historical and social imaginings the theorist was working from. More importantly, I am convinced that young researchers should always work to theorize anew rather than just reworking existing ‘theory’ tirelessly or at least try to bring seemingly disparate bodies of theory into a possible and new creative tension. Unfortunately it is the case that much theory in the social sciences and the arts in southern African universities remains rooted in a Western epistemological framework and therefore I think that young researchers – everywhere - need to begin to imagine and practice different methodologies - of doing anthropology for instance. 

What are you currently working on and why?

Currently I am involved in doing research for a minor dissertation in Social Anthropology (MA) at the University of Cape Town in which I am exploring the ways in which the global discourse on ‘Biodiversity Conservation’ is being mapped onto particular places within the city of Cape Town and the kind of politics, poetics, and practices that are emerging from this. The particular place from which I am working is a small “nature reserve” that lies nestled between four different neighbourhoods in the area known as the Cape Flats. This piece of land was transformed into a conservation area during the late 1950s when a somewhat eccentric Botanist – who was often seen roaming around in the Cape Vleis, a lone white woman in gumboots and with a collection of vials around her neck, mapping ecologies – identified a small ancient fern as being completely endemic to this one particular site. She then went on to invest most of her savings and mortgage in order to buy this piece of land which she then donated to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.

Over the years this piece of land has been made, unmade, contested, imagined, inhabited and managed in a multitude of different ways by both human and nonhuman actors and have been incorporated in different ways into overlapping regimes of governance and care. Thus, my research is looking at some of the historical entanglements and legacies that intersect at this particular place in order to trace some of the meanings of biodiversity conservation (as a discourse of interconnectedness and rooted in ecological thinking) within an fragmented urban landscape that have been characterized by forced removals, displacements, a huge housing shortage and a development trajectory strongly shaped by segregation and racial discrimination. Despite having worked from a so-called “nature reserve” – this particular space was being used for gang peace talks; educational outings; discussions over tendering processes; for skills workshops; as a space for entrepreneurial imaginings; and for the production of scientific knowledge of ecologies; and for contestations over what constitutes the heritage of the Cape Flats.

The above mentioned practices are partly a consequence of the work done through a partnership project between the South African Biodiversity Institute, the Local Government, and the Botanical Society called Cape Flats Nature that existed for about 10 years prior to being disbanded. Its legacy remains alive amongst the managerial practices at the reserve which is very much driven by a strong orientation towards building “community partners” and relationships and is also evident in the kind of imaginaries that are driving the politics of conservation within this particular context.

These imaginaries are mostly organized around a kind of conviction of the interconnectedness between people and nature and the need to counter forms of disconnection through finding ways to make social development and conservation work together. The reason I chose to pursue this project was because I was told of some of the “community partners” that this ‘nature reserve’ had made – in particular a few individuals who were seen to be ex-gangsters and who were now avid gardeners and spiritualists - and I was eager to meet them and to hear their stories. This led me to do research both at the reserve and with some individuals in the surrounding neighbourhoods. Another reason was that this project also seemed to present in some sense a counter-narrative to the dominant narrations about conservation and environmentalism in southern Africa; whilst at the same time being very much embedded within the racial and spatial legacies of colonial and apartheid management and planning of ‘nature’ and dominant people-centred development paradigms organized around forms of participatory planning.

Friday, July 20, 2012

JWTC seen from Pakistan

This year, the JWTC July Workshop hosted its first participant from Pakistan. Zahra Hussein studied architecture at Goldsmiths College, London, with Eyal Weizman. She went back to Pakistan where she is conducting a research on drone attacks, architecture and the law. She speaks to The Blog.

You attended your first session of the JWTC. How did you hear about the JWTC and what are the reasons that led you to apply to the 2012 Session?

I met Professor Achille Mbembe last year in London where he came to deliver a lecture at Birbeck College. I introduced myself and told him about my work. I was then conducting research on the architecture of counter-insurgency in Pakistan. He showed great interest in my research and, after further intellectual exchange, I learnt about his and his colleagues work especially regarding the JWTC. Learning more about the JWTC, it immediately became clear to me which to me that this
platform presented an alternative intellectual position removed from the ordinary East-West dichotomy that is so dominant in South Asia.

What are the events in this year's program that you enjoyed the most and why?

I really liked how the art shows were made part of the intellectual rationale of the workshop and curated. They were not conceived of as an illustration of theory. They were themselves instances of theory, modes of discourse and argumentation in their own right. They also made for lively viewing and constituted a powerful counterpoint to the entire experience. The first morning, we were taken for a tour of Johannesburg. The introduction to this major Southern Hemispheric city laid out information in a particular sequence and connected the historical strands to form a complete picture for the audience.

You were coming to Johannesburg for the first time. What are the features of the city that have been the most striking for you?

Johannesburg is, in a word, awesome. It is unlike many cities in Pakistan and yet, here and there, there are so many parallels. The fast evolution of the city and the social energy it generates - all of this is quite simply astounding. Of very particular interest is the fact that this peculiar city is very much constituted by what lies beneath its soil. The various forms of spatial segregations, whether based on class, race or otherwise, can still be mapped out easily. I was particularly interested in how segregation and security now morph into each other.

You just completed an important research on the architecture of counter-insurgency in Pakistan. What does the theme "Futures of Nature" may add to your topic?

Natural and climatic disasters present an intriguing parallel to (counter) insurgencies. They both affect and are themselves affected by space. They are both forms of agency. So while the titles of both topics might seem somewhat unrelated, there are actually many interweaving threads of inquiry linking them.

What are you currently working on and why?

I am currently involved with the Centre for Research Architecture. This is a fully-funded European Research Council project. We are doing research on the ways in which human rights are played out in the realm of architecture and the law. Alongside other things, we are currently looking at the drone attacks in Northwest Pakistan. Typically we examine situations (human rights violations) in which there is a high degree of spatial complexity due to a variety of factors (access to the space geographically, complex micro-infrastructures, diffusion of munitions used in perpetrating the violation etc.). We then map and model these situations in order to re-create a chain of events in relationship to a set of legal questions.