Thursday, July 26, 2012

Prospecting autonomy, extracting authenticity?

Carlos Crespo present
Phillip Rousseau comments on Carlos Crespo’s “Statalization and Commodification of Natural Resources and Social Resistances under the Morales Government”.
Carlos Crespo’s public lecture focused on the long history of destruction of the commons by the centripetal forces of the Bolivian State. From 19th century laws of expropriation, to State led mining and oil extraction in indigenous territories in the 20th century, the richly detailed presentation offered a clear view of the renewable waves of statalization and commodification of natural resources. The historical overview culminated in the presentation of contemporary processes of resource extraction in Bolivia and recent indigenous strategies of resistance to them.
Autonomy was a persistent theme in Carlos’ presentation. His explicit call for a politics of autonomy to counter Bolivian statism was especially eloquent in his presentation of the two main strategies of indigenous resistance to State and Capital expansion. The gist of Carlos’ argument was that, historically, indigenous struggles have been for autonomy and not just efforts to obtain rights of citizenship from the State (and therefore not just asking for more dependence/recognition). The two main strategies adopted by indigenous populations presented were the following:
1)          Reciprocity as contractual negotiations of rights and duties between State and indigenous communities;
2)          Refuge from territorial expansion of State and Capital, a strategy becoming more and more difficult in the face of the intense mapping out of the Bolivian territory.
If, for Carlos, both strategies enable some form or another of political autonomy, refuge seemed to win his favor for its less conciliatory perspective.[1] Although one can certainly understand the strategy of avoidance in this case, how to articulate these practices to anything resembling a “common” certainly becomes a highly critical issue. Political autonomy can certainly lead to forms of appropriation that might be quite challenging to communal efforts wishing to go beyond institutionalized political divisions.
The main thrust of what follows is that, contrary to Carlos’ appeal, the concept of autonomy, albeit necessary, seems more ambiguous to me then he suggested in his talk. This deserves scrutiny since efforts we’re made to contrast this concept from what he called “ideal concepts” like human rights, sustainable development, social participation, etc. These abstract concepts, Carlos suggested, contrary to immanent practices, lack the capacity to galvanize social cohesion and counter commodification.[2] They cannot do so, since they are based on a “rights” discourse that is mostly individualistic.
Autonomy has everything to do with a will to extract oneself from easy equivalences, abstractness, interchangeability, loss of specificity, etc. State, Capital and the social sciences are particularly well equipped for quick standardization and determinist accounts lacking historical agency. In the case of indigenous populations, and as the two strategies have shown, autonomy stands as an attempt to circumvent, partly at least, the standardizing processes that inevitably comes with State citizenship and ownership.  
Yet, autonomy can play itself out on many (political) scales: individual, local, regional, State or global level. The State, for many – whether they are right or wrong – is an apparatus that might give a certain political leveraging to those concerned (I come from a Canadian province that sometimes likes to think so). Others might prefer to find this autonomy at the local or even individual level against the State – again, for better or worst.
Let’s zoom in on the individual level for a second. We should not forget here that the rights discourse is precisely a philosophical offspring of modernist moral philosophy (amongst other things). In other words, self-law, self-government, self-rule we’re all concepts deriving from an attempt at designing responsible and autonomous individuals (or groups of) against fatalism and determinism. It was an attempt at giving autonomous “free will” a practical traction in daily lives. This, of course, has not necessary lead to autonomous forms-of-life, but abstract and standardized legal codification with which comes the good, the bad and the ugly (and certain forms of social cohesion). Yet, this example shows us that the politics of autonomy are not so easily distinguishable from rights as was suggested in the lecture. One could argue that autonomy is precisely at the heart of a rights based approach.
Let’s continue with my very crude analogy with the design of the modernist autonomous subject who is constantly asked to know thy self and act accordingly to her/his true conscience. In other words, autonomy can imply being true to oneself, the “authentic self,” its needs, desires and aspirations (constantly riveting us to us or me to me). This reeks of authenticity speak and I’m a bit worried that this underlying link between autonomy and authenticity might be replayed on other scales then the individual one (which has already shown the incredible levels of toxicity it can reach).
This becomes even more troublesome if autonomy is weaved together with ideals about social cohesion (as it seemed to be the case in Carlos’ presentation). What social cohesion are we talking about here exactly? Who is to determine and apply the necessary criteria? Is social cohesion to be linked with “authentic” ways of life?
I am not implying here that the indigenous strategies in Bolivia are for these reasons reprehensible, inefficient or morally skewed, my point is that the concept of autonomy used to qualify them tends to become an abstraction in itself if it does not take into account its own political and historical ambiguities. Exactly what Carlos rightly tried to demystify during his important contribution to the workshop.
One last comment regarding the lecture: Carlos’ strategy depended on historical continuity – the “long view” as he called it – to read through the Bolivian case. A necessary strategy, of course, that was executed with the hand of a maestro. The one issue I might have with this type of narrative is that you end with the impression that you simply have different historical reactions, by State or locals, to the same capitalism. It therefore tends to dehistoricize capitalism as an immutable outside by concentrating on localized practices. Supplementing the Bolivian case with the changing processes of Capital might offer interesting analytical and political possibilities.
This is a tough nut to crack for sure, but one that might enable autonomy to become a much more commonly shared practice working against some of its own ambiguous impulses.
Phillip Rousseau

[1]       This links his efforts to the works of Pierre Clastres and James Scott. In his classic work, La Société contre l’État (1974), Clastres argued that where some tend to presuppose a lack of State formation in “primitive” societies, one instead could find strategies of avoidance to it. Carlos’ argument is based on a similar logic: indigenous populations do not necessarily aim at being recognized by the State, but are actively trying to dodge its expansive grip.
[2]         (making wonder if “commons” is also an ambiguous ideal concept)

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.