Monday, July 9, 2012

If we doubt ourselves, who will have belief in us?

Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga

Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, Assistant Professor of science, technology and society the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, speaks to the JWTC Blog.
Bruno Latour's work was very much at the center of the debates during the 2012 JWTC roundtable on 'Things of Nature|Nature of Things'. What, from his thought on nature/objects/things, should in your view be amended as he moves South?
Bruno Latour is obviously beginning to catch fire in the Global South. He is probably the next Foucault. Before Foucault there was, of course, Marx. One of Foucault’s most serious readers in African studies, V. Y. Mudimbe, has lamented the persistence of a “Western ratio” at the center of African thought. Mudimbe states very clearly that Foucault, despite his brief sojourn in North Africa, was not writing for or about Africa but (specific) Western societies. Nor was Marx; same for Latour.
We should, therefore, be cautious about what is universalizable about them; that does not mean they are not intellectually usable material. Even in Western academia, Latour has been criticized for his “executive approach” that privileges the lab engineer or scientist. This applies to actor network heuristics in general. My fear is that people bringing Latour or Science and Technology Studies (STS) into African Studies are simply going to trace the itineraries of Western artifacts derived from the labs that STS described, the infrastructures and thought systems transplanted to Africa from them, and make this the be-all end-all of science and technology in Africa.
 If that were to happen, my fear is that there will be no investment in investigating African modes of sciences and technologies—or the very idea that they exist. Latour does not have a formula for nonwestern ways of knowing (science) and means of doing (technology). Uncritical discipleship to him will be a trap because it saddles one with that baggage of theoretical insufficiency.
 What would be in your view the most efficient use of Latour and others in the African context?
I would urge that we critically utilize Latour as a methodology for writing narratives in humanities and social sciences, viz., to take seriously the role not just of humans but also nonhumans as actors (or actants), as heterogeneous actors in the making of the social.
He wants us to pay attention to the process through which things come to be constituted. And one would say Africanists have always been too human-centric or social-constructivist in their narratives, with animals, the physical environment, and technology as mere anecdotes, wax in people’s hands, or simply nuisances and hazards. Foucault made Africanists even more social constructivist. Two nonhuman elements, technology and ‘nature,’ are quite central to Latour’s analysis. The former constitutes some kind of Western idolatry—Western society is crazy about technology in the hi-tech sense - which means we must question what ‘technology’—alongside ‘experiment,’ ‘science,’ ‘nature,’ ‘environment,’ etc.—really mean in the context of African people’s lived realities.
Are you suggesting that we go beyond some of the foundational dualisms that have been so central to our craft?
Yes, definitively. The division between nature and culture (and spirituality) is tenuous to say the least in the African context. By contrast, Western orders of knowledge, since Hobbes and Boyle, follow a distinct Fact vs. Faith, Reason vs. Religion, dichotomy. In African contexts, this tradition of thought confronted another in which faith and religious structure anchor and inspire fact and reason - one that, like most Global Southern cultures, was more concerned with the whole (earth) than the bisected parts. Vivisection did not have a life of its own; it acquired purpose and meaning within the whole, hence as Joseph Needham remarked once, if one went into Chinese society looking for Science, one would not find it; only sciences.
Whereupon one might ask: As China expands into Africa, Africans into China, and as books get translated from Chinese to English, what might the growing collection of Chinese texts tell us about systems of thought similar to pre-European African modes, now that Western modes of thought have been around and are familiar to us? Is it time to expand our intellectual vista so that we no longer always have to look to Western philosophy for grounding our theories? Why must we always gain universality by looking West?
Should modes of theorization emerging from the South necessarily aspire to be "universal"?
Erudition in front of global audiences, or the desire to impress, should not drive our theory; it should be for the right reasons.
We speak with more strength, authority, and originality if we can tap into registers emergent from local creativities, and if we exercise patience in developing our ideas.
It should not be about taking the theories of others and running with them. Our own material can gain universal reference. We should endeavor to make ourselves aware and read in the registers of others, but never aspire to become miniature others, merely good imitations of Foucault, Latour, or Derrida. The exercise shouldn’t be one of wholesale consumptionism. The goal of literature reviews must always be as precursors to stating our own positions, not making them our own.
Our problem is always that we need to be like them in order to gain universal appreciation. I think we can speak from here with tools from here about materials from here and still acquire universal validity. Subaltern Studies did this.
How do you explain the poverty of theory in 'African studies"?
Any culture of writing and knowledge production emerges out of a specific moment or inspiration. Ours was the Hegelian framing that gave us no history. We were mere hostages to nature, mere moments in the Eurasian passages through space. Even nature (especially the wild) had history. We did not, unless we were part of the wild (hence my ambivalence about the concept of ‘nature’ or ‘the animal’). So it had to be a social history and anthropology searching for empirical evidence, as much of it as possible, wherever it could be found, to prove we had a history too.
My experience of ‘philosophy’ in university was of a syllabus on Thucydides, Socrates, and other foreign people—never about my ancestors’ proverbs and other idioms or their technological achievements, like Great Zimbabwe which, in any case, had been attributed to foreign construction. Until we take idioms generated from here seriously ourselves, they will always be caricatures to and of others.
It could be that the colonial system of education had no interest in making us thinkers. Our failure to decolonize our education system and foster a new way of training students to think and innovate, to be creative beings and not just potential employees, to move beyond a system where we were supposed to be only ‘baas boys’, good only at taking instructions instead of thinking critical, is the biggest liability we confront.
Spaces for creative thinking must therefore be utilized wherever they may be found, and our youth encouraged to take a kind of creative recklessness toward received registers. Governments and universities can facilitate the creation of these spaces.  Africa’s vast intellectual pool at home and abroad has enough networks now that could be marshaled into spaces of intellectual ferment—right here on the continent.
Any thoughts about the future of critique in Africa?
Originality and self-belief will be critical as we move forward. It is as if we are not confident to think we can stand on our own feet if we think and speak like Africans and engage the outside as such. If we doubt ourselves, who will have belief in us?