Monday, July 2, 2012

Past and future of South African social theory

An interview with Belinda Bozzoli, Special Advisor to the Vice Chancellor and Acting Director of WISER.
A major feature of the South African intellectual landscape in the 1980s was The History Workshop, of which you were one of the key drivers. Can you tell us how The History Workshop came to be and what was your personal implication in its founding?
The History Workshop actually started in 1977 and I coordinated it for its first ten years or so together with a wonderfully enthusiastic group of colleagues, most of whom went on to other things, but some of whom have remained involved. It was a movement of its time, linked strongly to the powerfully emerging labour movement and inspired by the British History Workshop Movement, which also emerged from links between academics and labour. We later found a considerable degree of compatibility with the American Social History project, also a labour-connected academic grouping based in New York, and with academic left thinking of the time, which emphasised the need for academic work to find a connection that was more than just symbolic, with the concerns and plight of the very poor, marginalised and disadvantaged, and which abjured the emerging ANC-based nationalism and populism of the time.
All of us in the History Workshop had other interests – it was not really a full-time preoccupation – and so each member had his or her own trajectory of thought subsequently.
History as a discipline then occupied a central place in debates about the future of South Africa. How do you explain this hegemonic position and what were the causes of its subsequent decline in the post-Apartheid era?
These are somewhat loaded questions, I think. In fact historians were not the only people involved in left-wing academic work of the time. A range of disciplines including sociology, politics, anthropology, education, political economy, economics and the like, all contributed. Marxism was a huge inspiration and its very epistemology compelled us not to bow to the disciplinary boundaries common in academe. Of course Marxism requires historical thinking for it to make sense – the world is seen to be in constant flux, and the past is the harbinger of the present and future.  But that is not the same as talking about “history as a discipline”. 
The “decline” of history as a discipline is an odd way of expressing how the contemporary academic world works. It seems to imply that a) we all have and are attached to our disciplines; and b) that some disciplines are more prominent than others at any one time. And yet surely the reality is that different epistemologies, rather than different disciplines, rise and fall. Often this is not just a matter of whim or fashion (though it sometimes feels like that) but of the nature of the social forces that drive society. Thus Post-colonialism is itself a deeply historical approach, but one which is compelled by the nature of the world today, and by its own logic, to examine, for example, the surfaces presented by cultural forces, rather than the subterranean economic drivers which preoccupied Marxists.  
It has often been said that The History Workshop project was anti-theoretical. Is it true that theory as understood by members of the collective started and ended with Gramsci and E.P. Thompson?
The History Workshop was not coterminous with left wing academic thought of the time. There were multiple strands of thinking, and the degree to which academic work was explicitly conceptually inspired varied. I would say Marxism was the most profound and deeply conceptualised influence on the entire movement; and that various schools of Marxist thought then generated different types of analytical responses. Gramsci indeed inspired one of them; the Marxism of the Fourth International another; the “cultural Marxists”, of whom Thompson was one of many, another; and of course structural Marxism a fourth.  All very typical of left movements, fragmenting into a million different strands.
How was ‘race’ being mobilized politically and intellectually at the time? And to what extent did the link with the emerging labour movement help the History Workshop to attend, in its work, to historical processes of racialization?
“Race” was considered with a certain amount of intellectual scepticism in politics, in the labour movement and in left academic circles. It was thought to be a dead concept, a knee-jerk mirroring of the versions of history promulgated by our race-obsessed rulers at the time. Its implicit and, in the views of some, inevitable, connections to the probable future mobilisation of right wing forms of African nationalism were regarded with a certain amount of trepidation. (Some might say these fears have been vindicated.)
To what extent is the apparent conflict between ‘theory’ and ‘empiricism’ a false conflict?
We need to make the distinction between the “empirical” and “empiricism”. No self-respecting researcher would wish to claim “empiricism” as a virtue, for it  degrades the academic enterprise by its na├»ve, positivistic belief that “the facts will speak for themselves”, and that the accumulation of empirical evidence will in the end, in and of itself,  lead to the development of greater truths and understanding. However being “empirical” is a vastly different thing, more closely aligned to a realist epistemology than a positivist one, a philosophy in which the interplay between the conceptual and the empirical is a dialectical one.
Why didn’t The History Workshop achieve the same international impact as the Subaltern Studies project in India?
I hope JWTC doesn’t design survey questionnaires (very unlikely anyway), because this is another loaded question.
I think subaltern studies became well known in the US because its main advocates emigrated to US universities and because there they were able to find some compatibility there with the powerfully prevalent post-structuralist and post-modern thinking. This compatibility was difficult to find in the case of the Marxism still implicitly present in South Africa – indeed there has been something of an unfortunate stand-off between the two world views. 
In your view, does theory has a future in contemporary South Africa?
Well, does contemporary South Africa itself have a future? We are now confronted so compellingly by the failures of post-apartheid South Africa that this will, I believe, have a fundamental effect on academic theory and will challenge all of us to revisit our conceptual assumptions. I predict an upheaval in South African social theory in the near future.