Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Tied Tide

I want to begin this contestation in a very para-tactical way, in a delirious way, using/abusing a surrealist method of writing, I’m going to make an automatic writing list inspired by the four presentations made under the heading of Platform – Oceans | seas | islands |littorals | beaches. The following list is clearly inspired by the outstanding David Goldberg’s call to sound (out) the sea. In the same sense, with my list, I’m going to sound out the sea of one (my) brain.
The sea, at this moment, recalls an octopus, a fish, Jesus Christ walking, multiplied food, Christopher Columbus, a ship, a shellfish, a swordfish, salt, waves, fishermen, net, rich people on yachts, pirates, buccaneers, islands, capes, lighthouse, confusion, cruise, water world, bob squarepants, Alvar Nuñez cabeza de vaca, el pagamento, coral, whales, free willy, low tide, medium tide, high tide, drowned, flooded, ocean, a message in a bottle, continent, incontinent, Gulliver, sharks, coast, beach, other, cannibal, Caribbean, The Tempest, Une Tempête, slave traffic, drug traffic, submarine, marine, mar, mere, deep, depth, profound, jellyfish, Sinbad, crocodile hunter, Popeye, work trade, sea worship, ship, shipwreck, crusade, Rousseau, Crusoe.
Let’s take for instance Crusoe’s experience; the white European who become a castaway after a shipwreck. The story of Crusoe is probably one of the most well known plots, one that plays on different preoccupations and articulates notions of civilization, race, slavery, mastery, animality, cannibalism, faith, hope, ownership of the other, conquest of the other, ocean madness, individualism, etcetera.
Therefore, the particular relationships between Robinson and one of the other characters he dealt with are of some interest. Robinson, the main character, the Englishman, operates as the representative of civilization and the one in charge of sustaining certain values. As a Christian, he symptomatically names the fugitive from the native tribe, Friday, the day on which God created the animals and the beasts. Friday in Crusoe’s mind is adept to be his servant, companion or assistant, in any case, to occupy a position in which Crusoe is able to command him. It does not matter if Friday becomes educated and converts to Christianity, he still will never be able to command any future enterprise, only to clean up the mess.
In the conditions of the relationship between Robinson Crusoe and Friday, I see very little hope for the civilizing enterprise and a true dialogue becomes supremely difficult or impossible. It doesn’t matter if one learns the language of the other, there is absolutely no possibility that Robinson Crusoe will teach Friday how to change his role in their relationship or to invert the hierarchy.
Friday is domesticated and educated by the European Castaway, which means that someone who is absolutely lost educates him. Who he becomes is someone who shares the general fate of the native who also becomes the immigrant, the servant, the object of domination, the freed one, the alien, the outer space inhabitant, the other culture, and the multicultural one. Nothing new, nothing outstanding but only a perpetual position in a never changing structure of power. Perhaps it would have been preferable for Friday to have been eaten by the Cannibals.
Crusoe’s logic of confusion, his will of the lost, is perpetrated by the supremacy of the hierarchical systems used to construct knowledge, history and images. The confusion of Christopher Columbus, his inability to recognize where he was, drove him to name the inhabitants of the islands Indians, and in that act, one can identify a similitude to the way Crusoe named the savage. We can view both Crusoe and Columbus’s voyages as delirious overlapping journeys in the case of Columbus, through an imagined Indian Ocean that wasn’t there.
The confusion caused by the oceanic drift is the aspect of both Crusoe and Columbus’s stories that I wish to point out here. It is this confusion, provoked by feelings of disorientation, of a lack of moorings that recalls the image of a continental shipwreck. This land is the land where we have been shipwrecked and the sea that surrounds us is only drift and confusion.
We learned how to survive the wreck of the Conquest, that big bang that overlapped theories and histories, but we are still being educated by the necessities of a few people. We are frightened, surrounded by the sea, by the ocean, by the land where we have been shipwrecked. Only those who master the ocean are able to manage it, to be in charge of the resources it gives us.
We are still being trapped by the ocean, not only by the oceaness of the ocean, but also by the Civilized European epistemology that can only understand it as the opposite of the land, a narrow perspective in which everything is seen as the opposite of something. In a very appropriate image of the apocalypse, we are acquiring old perspectives at the end of time. We are afraid of something; we need something to be afraid of. We create opposites in order to justify our fear and our will and means of domination of nature.
Addressing the image of the surfer showed by Goldberg, surfing can be seen as one of the ways to feel that humans domesticated the ocean, civilized it, but only in a superficial way, that means, only on its surface. We can proudly use a surf board as if it were a piece of land surfacing above the water, in order to re-enact the scene of Christ not walking but surfing the waves. Beneath the surface of the images of Christ walking on water or the surfer, lays a deeper meaning.
Ever since the shipwreck initiated by the conquest, we feel that every colonial episode has transformed our whole understanding of the relationship between the sea and the land, between the ocean and the earth, but on the other hand, we feel that nothing has changed. If we take for instance the fuller isoedric dyxomap projection, and we attempt to use it to replace the actual coordinates we use to understand the earth, we may drift into other allegorical problems, one can imagine the continent as the site of a shipwreck and our lives as those of castaways or marooned sailors.  We are faced then with the impossibility of accurately representing or charting our course into the depths of nowhere.
But the point I wish to make is that the type of subject derived from that enlightening narrative of Crusoe’s experience; the radical individualistic subject depicted by Crusoe’s character, is the perpetual lonely soldier in a frantic ride against nature. He represents the crusading human’s desire to travel far away, into the ocean of planets, asteroids and universes, not caring that the human is going to feel alone, in a world that doesn’t give him any stability or security.
This is a fragment of Luis Buñuel’s Robinson Crusoe (1954)
Robinson is with his dog, but he’s alone, he’s with the cat or the parrot but he feels alone eternally lonely, he searches tirelessly in order to in the hope of not feeling abandoned or marooned in the universe. The Apocalypse seems to complete the image, and at least make the human feel that he’s not that lonely. Sometimes one can sense that the Apocalypse is the step humanity has to take to evolve, to transform nature and to become something other, at the same time, the apocalypse differentiates between the living dead and the spirits, the good and the bad, those admitted into the glorious kingdom of heaven and those that are to be excluded.
Maybe we should plan to face the apocalypse with a surfboard.
Despite the numerous interpretations of the Robinson Crusoe story, we still face the ghosts that inhabit the story as if they were brand new. The narratives of Nature found in Crusoe, which tend to come back again and again: the survivor, he who is skilled enough to confront inhospitable nature, has already been transformed. Our quest for survival has become a different narrative about the earth and its wealth; Happy Water, Green politics, natural reservations, conservationism, sustainability, everything is in our hands. Don’t use too much water, be natural, be wild, love the animals, and don’t eat meat. We survive as consumers and we have created a new subject of opposition, a new emerging class of green people, green politics who are at the front of the green apocalypse.
We see that there has been a transformation; now the consumer is compelled to clean up the mess, while the managers of the world keep on exploiting and educating in a very humanistic approach to preserve not only the world, but the actual relations of the world. Who is deciding how to master and mange the climate change policies?
Art also has to deal with those inner contradictions, with the representation of the human and the non-human as we saw in the exhibitions during the JWTC. It seems that one of the responsibilities of art is to construct different images and critique existing images of the possible. To be transgressive. We repeatedly have had to struggle with powerful narratives of corporative land owners, of religions, and with remixes of those same narratives, and we are still cleaning up the mess of the residual processes of history in whose construction we had no part.
Southern epistemologies appear to be a way of encouraging other dialogical forms. As Achille Mbembe pointed out about the singularity of human kind, human beings are part of the unique but they are not the unique. Instead, human life can be seen as an impure form of water. (Impure Ocean).
Southern epistemologies can be seen as epistemologies of the impure or composite epistemologies. We can decide not to be blinded by the promises of green consumerism, which mask the same old narratives of exploitation and occlusion, the same ideologies masked by the promise of the apocalypse and of redemption. We can prefer not to take our places in the glorious green heaven of the believers and instead stand with our feet firmly on the ground. From that perspective maybe we can sound (out) the polluted sea that we are.
Andrés Jurado

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.