Sunday, July 1, 2012

Theorizing from Johannesburg


The story is that you and the Vice Chancellor, Professor Loyiso Nongxa, provided the seed money that helped to set up the JWTC in 2009. What did you see in that project that warranted your support?

In the JWTC, we saw an opportunity for Wits to showcase, coordinate and launch new intellectual dialogues and forms of knowledge production from its position as a significant intellectual force in the Global South. We also knew that Professor Achille Mbembe in particular was a key intellectual and critical thinker. His commitment to the initiative would enable new thinking and theoretical reflection and experimentation. We wanted Wits to consolidate its position at the forefront of those institutions in the South which endeavour to turn conventional thinking on its head and shed new light on contemporary issues.

What started as a modest intervention has since then become one of the main destinations in the global nodes of critical theory. In your view, what are the reasons why the JWTC has been so successful?

A number of things. An intellectually enabling, vibrant, even vibrating context that Wits, the Faculty of Humanities and WISER provide. The presence of Achille Mbembe and his colleagues Kelly Gillespie, Julia Hornberger, Prishani Naidoo and others in the intellectual collective that hatched the intellectual bomb we call the JWTC in this space. The energy that a city like Johannesburg, with its complex mix of potential and possibilities, does allow. Ours is indeed a city that is both a part of its locality and also ‘removed’ from it.  The enthusiastic response by local and international scholars and students to this initiative is a testimony to its success. What the JWTC offers is a platform they are invited to inhabit. To attend the JWTC Workshops is to immerse oneself in a theoretical journey without a pre-fixed destination.  

Wits University has long been the premier institution in social sciences and the humanities in Africa. This position is now forcefully challenged by other universities in SA. Any idea about how to keep the edge?

Without sounding dismissive or immodest, I have very serious doubts that there is any forceful challenge at this point in time. But it is true that once you are successful at something, you might inspire others to better you at your own game and that you have a responsibility to keep the edge and even to better yourself. So in pursuant of keeping ahead of the pack, WIts uses its not inconsiderable intellectual ‘capital’ to build on its current success. We are also trying to place the JWTC on a firmer administrative ground with a resource base. We will also draw in more of our colleagues within Wits, across Africa and the global South. This is how we can enrich the debate. We will also be bolder in drawing on the energy of Johannesburg to fuel new ways of critical thinking.

What does the fact of being in a massive city-region such as Johannesburg do for the work of theory?

It challenges it. It energises. It turns theory on its head. It disorients and even disturbs. It provokes creative ways of rethinking and thinking concepts and paradigms. 

What do you want to be your main legacy as a Dean of the Humanities?

A Dean who could recognise and embrace innovative ways of ‘performing’ the humanities in the 21st Century.