Thursday, July 26, 2012

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.

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