Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Meeting the Next Generation of Scholars

The 2012 JWTC session witnessed the participation of many young South African and international scholars. The Blog has spoken to some of these. We will run their profiles in the next few weeks. Today, we speak to Janie Swanepoel from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Stellenbosch.
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?

My supervisor Professor Steven Robins advised me to apply for the Workshop. Since my research concerns “nature”, the theme also made the Workshop more attractive.

What are the events in this year's program that you enjoyed the most and why?
The theme “Futures of Nature” led us to consider the agency of non-humans. We occupied our minds with trees, the tsetse fly, oceans, and the gun to consider other ways of thinking about the (apocalyptic?) world we live in. In this spirit of taking seriously the material, the organisers exposed us to the place-ness of Johannesburg: we visited the mines from which the city was built, discarded urban places (uitvalgrond) and the remaking of spaces in the inner city through art. I really appreciated the way in which this workshop not only presented an excellent collection of lectures, but also gave us a visceral, material and cultural introduction to the place Johannesburg. I also wondered on the influence of this material experience of the city on our conversations and debates around epistemologies of the south – or thinking from the south. 
Can you tell us about the interactions between South African participants and the other participants who came from abroad?
Discussing my locally based project with international participants gave me the opportunity to refresh my perspective. I also learned a lot from the late night debates that took place on 7th Street Melville where conversations continued in a lively fashion from the day’s art exhibitions and lectures. The workshop provided a platform from which I could position my own thinking on an international level.
What, in your view, is the importance of 'theory' for young researchers?
As a young social scientist, it is a daunting task to make sense of the messiness that emerges from research, and theory helps with this task. But the JWTC is about rethinking theory and its place in the South. The relationship between methodology and theory was a recurrent theme in the discussions of the workshop. In the “Anthropocene” (Chakrabarty) the “project of critique as based on the premise of human exceptionalism” (Achille Mbembe) demands us to consider alternative agencies and ways of knowing and writing in the making of theory. Critiques of the apocalyptic alerted us to its ability to obscure the now and the lectures on transnational geopolitics illustrated the political nature of natures. These discussions seem to suggest that the future of critique lies in finding methodologies that challenge the current theoretical capital (mostly produced in the North). The culture of theory is as part of human-natural history, as it is part of its future(s), and the task of the next generation of scholars lies in engaging  with this practice while concentrating on those places, spaces, thinkers and philosophies and life systems that are often overlooked by theories built on Western understandings. The latter task should not be considered without criticism (it has it own set of problems brought to our attention by Annie Leatt) or without recognition to what has already been theorised.
What are you currently working on and why?
My ethnographic work explored some of the borders that positions Table Mountain National Park (TMNP) within the city of Cape Town. This has opened a network of people and spaces that brought together an interdisciplinary (but largely historical and anthropological) reading of the contemporary conflicts that emerge from the urban/nature interface. My interest in this study began with a simple question: how can it be that this large national park can exist (largely uncontested) within a city challenged with vast inequalities and housing shortages? Reading into the historical fabric of this metropolitan nature park, my curiosity has led me to another question: what nature, and for whom? This research forms part of my MA in Social Anthropology at the University of Stellenbosch.

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