Sunday, July 22, 2012

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

No comments:

Post a Comment