Sunday, June 30, 2013

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Source: RitaGT, Revolutionary- Composition  4 (2008)
RitaGT nasceu no Porto, 1980

Vive e trabalha em Luanda, Angola.

Licenciada em Design de Comunicação (2004) pela Faculdade de Belas-Artes da Universidade do Porto. Realizou o Programa Erasmus na Sofia’s Fine Arts Academy, Bulgária. Realizou o Curso avançado em Artes Visuais, Maumaus — Escola de Artes Visuais, Lisboa e frequentou o mestrado na Malmö Art Academy — Lund University em Malmö, Suécia. Das exposições individuais que realizou, destacam-se: A.I.R - African Industrial Revolution na UNAP em Luanda(2012); Looting (Pilhagem), intervenção de RitaGT no Museu do Traje (2010), Museu do Traje, Bienal de Viana do Castelo; One Night [life] Event, Evento de uma Noite [Vida] (2009), Empty Cube, Lisboa; Made in Europe, 10 Year Warranty (2009), Galeria Reflexus, Porto; e Tropicalismos Luso e outras Naturezas Mortas (2007), PêSSEGOpráSEMANA, Porto. Participa em diversas exposições colecticas, das quais de destacam: Mabaxa (2012), Galeria Soso - Arte Contemporanea Africana, Luanda;  A Filosofia do Dinheiro (2011), Museu da Cidade;  Amalia Nossa (2009/2010), CCB – Museu Berardo, Lisboa; Opções & Futuros: Colecção da Fundação PLMJ (2007), Arte Contempo, Lisboa; Anteciparte’07 (2007), Museu de História Natural, Lisboa; e Prémio Rothschild (2007), Lisboa. Esteve em residência artística no Casino Luxembourg (2005), no Luxemburgo, na ZDB (2007/08), e ao abrigo da bolsa INOV-Art, na residência artística Capacete, Rio de Janeiro e São Paulo.


Grouping Theories

Natasha Vally

Drawing on Jane Guyer's lecture "Is Confusion A Form", Natasha Vally unpacks mathematical group theory as a way of engaging varieties of form and their relationality.
The mathematics department at Wits is somewhere called “the annex” on the third floor of central block “close to Sociology”. It was only in my third year of a mathematics degree that I actually found the department, by chance, and when it really wasn’t needed. The sense of confusion and of the need to find somewhere and something at a relevant time but it being stubbornly out of reach was how mathematics always felt to me.
This blog post won’t deal in any systematic way with today’s not-lecture on “Confusion as a Form”. Perhaps like the speakers, I think that to detail in a linear way the content of a lecture on confusion would be dishonest and ill in formed. There is however reference to and shameless phrase-borrowing from some of the themes, terms and forms that were presented in this morning’s session.
Jane Guyer invoked mathematics and a need to engage with the ways in which disciplines that we are less familiar with encounter confusion. I luxuriated in Guyer’s mention of Boolean groups knowing very well that the smugness of understanding something needed to get me through the many anomalies and unknown categories of confusing future lectures. Groups, though, there is a place I can fit in.
Group theory is the conductor in the orchestra of mathematics. It is strictly taught as a method for analysing abstract and physical systems.[i] You spend years solving for x - listening to the music through your headphones – and then you realise that there are organising principles which, baton-wielding, conduct and order the possibilities of x. The x you were solving for could not be any value that fit nicely, instead the possibilities of its existence were bounded. Neo Muyanga, a leitmotif of the Workshop, has an album – Dipalo – where the track names are mathematical equations. He reminds us of the order in the tunes we drift away to and the drifting away in the numbers we are attuned to. The reason many people tell you they like mathematics is that a clear answer is possible. It’s a lie. The axiomatic assumptions and background work allow for the illusion of an unambiguous answer and it is in group theory where some of the foundations which format what is and isn’t possible unfold.
There is something romantic about Mobius strips which several of the talks on confusion elegantly knotted into their analyses. Geometry is a more obviously tangible and visceral mathematics. The lack of beginnings and ends appeals to our attraction to the undoing of binaries. It also makes for the writing of good papers and art because we like punctuation and lists of words: beginnings/ends, rise/fall, day/night, (dis)order. But we should also keep an eye on the beginnings and ends, partly because they are created and movable and thus open to subversion. This too has been a theme of the workshop – what are the possibilities of using the discomfort of anomalous forms to politically intervene to shift meanings and action? These are social and material considerations. 
Source: cdninstructables.com
Avoid the temptation to shut down when you see the letters and symbols below which float outside of words and vocabularies that you may be familiar with. Group theory invokes what Filip de Boeck, in his paper read by Guyer, calls amalgamation, where the theory tries to knot equations into the meta-discourse of the group. There are four rules to qualify something as a group. They display many of the concepts and themes raised when discussing confusion and order. What the overview of group theory is intended to do is to foreground the disciplinary similarities in the categorisations which we use to express belonging and exclusion in numerous fields. It is not in any way mathematically rigorous.
If you can remember, take for example the equation
2 + x = 3
The task is to figure out what x is. Because we need to do the same to either side of the equation (to maintain the equivalence), we get
2 + x -2 = 3 -2
So, x = 1
But this was based on a presumption that we were letting x be a positive number. If x only belonged to the category of negative numbers then there would be no x to satisfy the equation: we couldn’t subtract anything from 2 to give us 3.
What needs to be taken away from this is that a decision is made (provided/accepted/imposed) as to what “things” x can and cannot be.
Now, to generalise this
Say you have a • x = b
Then in group theory you ask these questions: What objects are a and b? To what class of objects is x allowed to belong? What is the operation 
symbolized by the dot (•)?
The four “rules” that a mathematical sentence need to obey to be a group are:
  1. CLOSURE: If a and b are in the group then a • b is also in the group.
If two elements are part of a form and you perform an action on these elements then the result is part of the form
  1. ASSOCIATIVITY: If a, b and c are in the group then (a • b) • c = a • (b • c).
If you perform an action on elements constituting a form then as long as the sequence of elements remain the same, the order of their grouping does not affect their belonging to that form
  1. IDENTITY: There is an element e of the group such that for any element a of the group
    a • e = e • a = a.
There is something in a form that when acting on an element gives you the result of that element itself
  1. INVERSES: For any element a of the group there is an element a-1 such that
    • a • a-1 = e
    • a-1 • a = e
The point should be apparent though. These are some of the sorts of questions we ask when we think through forms, their content, their thingness and thinghood, their political and material ramifications and the important question of what happens when they are not actually an acceptable group, what happens to the thing x then? Struggling with different groups of theories may allow for a new way of getting to know the lives of forms we’ve been introduced to so far.

[i] Group theory is an abstraction of symmetry, the notion that an object of study may look the same from different points of view. While it is relevant here, it may involve more mathematics than I can remember and more symbols than Word easily makes available.
Natasha Vally is a PhD student at WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand

Friday, June 28, 2013

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Kim Gurney
Kim Gurney is a visual artist, independent curator and freelance writer. She is affiliated to University of Cape Town's African Centre for Cities (www.africancentreforicites.net) where she contributes to a Public Culture Lab and University of Johannesburg's Research Centre: Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD). Kim is happy to breathe thinner air again at the JWTC after recently relocating from Johannesburg to Cape Town but regrets the lack of an external brain hard drive! In between workshop sessions, she is thinking about public space in Johannesburg, curating a July emerging artists' exhibition, penning an article on 'cities of tomorrow', making artwork that links financial hoax to language (www.kimgurney.com/fine-art) and writing a paper about artists and uncertainty for a forthcoming conference. 

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Elias Courson 
Elias Courson is a lecturer with the Department of Philosophy, Niger Delta University, Wilberforce Island, Bayelsa State, Nigeria. He is also an Executive Committee member of OUR NIGER DELTA (OND), a non-profit, non-governmental organization in Nigeria’s oil rich Niger Delta. The organization is involved in research, conflict management, resolution, mediation, peace building and facilitation of development.
Elias Courson, as a teacher and researcher, is neck deep in research, documentation and mediation in the oil induced crisis of Nigeria’s Niger Delta. He has been trained in conflict mediation/mitigation by the United Nations University for Peace on “Non-Violent Transformation of Conflict” and also by the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) on conflict resolution skills.
He was a Fellow of the Luce Foundation on Green Governance/Peace 2006-7 at the Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley and Rotary World Peace Fellow 2008-10 at the Rotary Center for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution, University of California, Berkeley. Mr. Courson is also a fellow of the Social Science Research Council, USA (2012). He is currently a PhD Candidate at the Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley.
He earned his Bachelor of Arts (1997) and Master of Arts (2005) degrees in Philosophy from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, and University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria, respectively. He also holds a Masters degree in Peace and Conflict Resolution from the Rotary Centre for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of California, Berkeley.

Journal of An Awkward Academic or Music in the State of War

Ainehi Edoro
Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism Day 1:  

At up-scale academic conference in fancy Johannesburg uni.
Everywhere is swarming with rock-star professors and genius graduate students well on their way to becoming rock-star professors at some future time. It's a funny sensation feeling like a fish out of water. 
Units of coffee consumed: 10 (went out late last night drinking, to wait out jet lag).
Units of alcohol: 10 (to counteract caffeine jitters).
Source: PrinceClauseFund.org
Number of times raised hand to make a smart comment/question for the sole purpose of impressing my fellow participants : 5
Number of times succeeded in making actual smart comment/question : 0
Number of times star-struck at meeting rock stars...of the academic kind I mean:6 
Number of times tried but failed woefully at schmoozing with said rock stars: 6
May or may not have spilled a glass of water during a lecture in full view of horrified academics pretending that I did not just make an arse of myself.
May or may not have spilled a cup of coffee on someone an hour later. Again in full view of the whole room. And again received the horrified-but-pretending-you-did-not-just-make-and-arse-of-yourself look from fellow academics. 
General assessment of first day at up-scale academic conference: not horribly bad seeing I actually feel quite up to the task of making a "detailed" journal entry of what actually took place.

10:30 Listened to Arjun Appadurai give a lecture on finance capital and derivatives. Said something about contemporary form of capitalism not being about commodities or surplus value but all about debt, derivatives, and taking risks on risk. One hour of illuminating but hard, dense intellectual food. Chewy and slow to process.
2:15 Back from lunch. Was hanging out in the lobby area talking with…can’t remember whom…when I heard music playing in the conference room. Sounded like a mix of electronic funk and maybe a touch of Afrobeat.
2: 16 Hurried off to investigate. Projector screen up. DJ mixers stacked in a corner. Room suddenly seemed lively. Less bare and academicky.  Ntone Edjabe was in the room chatting with Achille Mbembe and leafing through a stack of vinyl heaped on the table. Is he not the guy who founded Chimurenga? Shaggy-afro-headed, he is wearing a hat and a funky Ankara print windbreaker. Dressed for the part. The real postcolonial hustler!
Projected on a screen are past covers of Chimurenga. They are stunning, gritty, raw. I was struck by this one cover that had a group of three soldiers pursuing an Indian woman dressed in sari. She’s pretty, sexy, holding a gun, and on the run. To the right of the image is written: “Authority Stealing,” title of a Fela song. Fusing different cultural references and images to create something that is both urban and vintage, that brings together music, writing, and art is typical of Chimurenga, a hip, pan-African magazine where Africans write for Africans. Reminds me of Drum from back in the day. Trying not to seem to delighted that instead of another one-hour "illuminating" academic lecture, we are about to listen to a DJ and a philosopher have a conversation about music and politics.
2:35 Ntone leans back against his chair. He is relaxed and ready to play. Achille a bit less so, but he’s smiling and saying something to Ntone in French. The music has not been completely turned off. It’s playing in the background as Achille begins the conversation.
2:40 Achille: “You were born in Douala. You lived in Lagos. How is that you’ve chosen, of all places, to settle down in Cape Town?”
2:41 Ntone: “Let me begin my response with music.”
Response is definitely odd in an academic setting where silences are awkward, where speech is the primary way of responding to an address. We all looked on, unsure, curious, expectant. A Soukous track comes on. Intoxicating in the way only Soukous can be. Despite Ntone’s invitation, no one danced. Music, he explains, is supposed to the danced to. A few participants swayed this way and that, but no one really danced. I wanted to dance. I wanted to dance so badly, but didn’t. No one dances at academic conferences. It’s just not done, like making out during a church service. In an academic conference you put words in display and not bodies. Honestly, it would have been weird if anyone had danced. Still, I couldn’t help feeling like a moment, charged with possibility, had been lost, in our refusal to take the risk of placing our bodies on display to our fellow scholars.
2:45 - 4:00 Going back and forth between the seriousness of academic discourse and the playfulness of the DJ booth, responding to questions first with music and only later with words, playing music long enough to make us shifty on are seats. I say it's all play on form, play perhaps on the form of the academic conference.
As Ntone told us about his journey from Doula to Cape Town and the founding of Chimurenga, I was struck by how often Fela kept coming up.
Ntone: “I never experienced Fela as a musician only but also as a radical thinker, a revolutionary. He confronted power whether it came in the form of military dictators like Babangida, religious leaders, Abiola, Thatcher, Botha. In Cameroun, I was used to musicians and poets resisting power but it was done indirectly by not naming things or giving things a new name. But Fela named things, named the enemy, named power.”
Fela expanded the language of resistance, made it so that the language and form of music could absorb the pressures of the political. As Ntone puts it elsewhere, "By breaking the divide between the public and the private [Fela] expanded our vocabulary of resistance – the musician was no longer simply an entertainer."
At one point, recalling the famous Fela quote, “Music is the weapon,” Achille says to Ntone, “If music is the weapon, who is the enemy?”
Even I knew that was a genius question. Ntone ended up not addressing the question but, I found this scribbled down in my notebook:
What does it mean to think of music as an instrument of war, as a force of survival in the midst of war, as force of struggle against war, as something that destroys, that implicates one in a state of war? War is threat to the life of the city. It interrupts that constellation of forces that make up the urban space. Perhaps music is the means through which the urban is perserved, survives, persists in the midst of crisis. Music is a way of introducing form/performance into the chaos that is war. Music names the enemies, placing them in an exposed and precarious position. Both in music and in war, life and the body are the central object of concern. In war, life is exposed to danger. Death is rife. Where war harms and mutilate the body, music is a state in which the body discovers its capacity for life, movement, and form.

Ainehi Edoro studies African and contemporary British novels at Duke University. She also blogs about African fiction at Brittle Paper.
Ainehi Edoro 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Response to Arjun Appadurai's "The Future As Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition"

Drawing on delineations of culture in the anthropological canon and their intersection with Appadurai's use of the term in his recent book "The Future As Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition", Hylton White thinks through the entanglement of culture, history and economy.
There is so much one could say about these essays, which advance but also reorient, or at least mark a quite significant shift of emphasis in Appadurai’s work, extending but retooling his effort to put together a theoretical vision that he thinks would be more adequate to the world that has been created since the collapse of the socialist project. As extensions of his earlier work, they of course take the global condition as a starting point, both conceptually and in the kinds of empirical objects to which almost all of the essays attend. Whether he is writing about financial speculation, or urban social movements, or the meaningful conditions of possibility for popular violence, especially against minorities, Appadurai is never very far from concerns that all of us, in every part of the world, would recognize as being some of the most immediately compelling ones that face us in our own respective surroundings. So although he quite emphatically takes the stance of “the view from Mumbai” (113ff) here, that view will not disorient or seem overly unfamiliar to people who engage the world from Johannesburg, or even from New York. Anything else would be surprising, of course, since Appadurai reminds us several times here of an idea that he has made key to his own understanding of the peculiar shape that “the structure of the conjuncture” (Sahlins 1981) takes in a world like ours: the idea that the local is not just a work in messy progress, just as much as the global is, but also, even more to the point, that the local is itself a space created only by, even as, the confluence of many lines of global composition. If Marx (1857) described the concrete as being concrete because of its many determinations, Appadurai says that the local is the local because of its concentration of many globalizations. To discern and give names to those lines of composition is his project here as much as it was in Modernity at Large, even if, as he notes in his introduction to this collection, the world of the new millennium is one that makes us attend as much to the “bumps” as to the “flows” of global order. 

As the title tells us, the making of the future is the arena where Appadurai wants to pursue this broader theoretical agenda now, and in that we already see a shift not just in object but also in orientation. On re-reading now, as Chapter 1 in this volume, the well-known introduction to The Social Life of Things, we are reminded that Appadurai has long conceived of the social world as a kind of informational space: a domain where diverse imaginations cluster on a topography of pathways, conveyances, enclaves, diversions, overflows. The reference to “bumps” will signal that this spatial conception of social facts continues in the new work as well. But by Chapter 15, on “The Future as Cultural Fact,” we have moved towards a much more pressing concern with time. By giving that last essay’s title to the collection as a whole, Appadurai positions the book in some ways as a response to Jane Guyer’s call (2007) for an anthropology of the futures people posit, fear, await, defer, or dissolve in their activities. Also much like Guyer, Appadurai wants to investigate these productions of the future by examining the interplay of economy and culture. That intersection is where I want to focus my remarks as well, but let me come to this gradually, by starting with just one of these terms: Appadurai’s notion of culture.
I start there because, as followers of anthropology’s recent intellectual history will know, the irony of the matter is that “culture” is a much less likely term than is “economy” to be found within the title of a major work in the field now. In polite speech among anthropologists in the early 21st century, culture is almost as abject a term as any of the discipline’s repudiated inheritances. Yet Appadurai uses “culture” in the noun form more than a hundred times in these three hundred pages, not counting bibliography, footnotes or headers, and repeatedly in that most avoided plural: “cultures”. Coming from a figure of Appadurai’s generation and stature, this insistence suggests not just analytical method, but manifesto: a statement about the nature and the promise of anthropology, at a time when all the social sciences face great institutional and intellectual difficulties.
To be clear, these are not the “cultures” of Mead and Benedict, let alone of Tylor and the like, and Appadurai is an ambivalent anthropologist. He begins the book by renouncing much of the field as a scrabbling about in a “cabinet of curiosities” (5), aka the ethnological record, and close to the end he complains that anthropologists’ concerns with what is passing from the face of the earth have “confined” (285) the imagination of the discipline. Statements like these have become obligatory gestures of self-distancing embarrassment, of course, and one has to ask what the ritual of their repetition in text after text is covering up in the broader self-conception of the discipline. But despite succumbing at moments to this impulse, Appadurai much more consistently and decisively follows another. Douglas, Dumont and other anthropological theorists animate most of these essays because the concern Appadurai shares with them is an interest in identifying, not so much how culture shapes the behavior of human others, but rather, almost the opposite, how culture allows human actors to make worlds otherwise through their practical activities. This interest in the otherwise of human life is anthropology’s signal contribution to the lexicon of modern critical thinking. Of course it can be made into a charter for fixating on the essentialisms of otherness, but most of anthropology’s major theorists have in one way or another treated culture as a doorway onto the open-ness of the human condition, rather than to its closure. As Andrew Sartori puts it in his account (2005) of the global history of the culture concept, wherever culture appears as a term in modern intellectual life, in South Asia, Europe or elsewhere, it does so because it articulates the emergence of a new interest in the underdetermination of human affairs by externalities or givens. Although he does not put it in so many words, and in fact refuses to offer us a definition of culture as such, Appadurai is firmly in that tradition here when he describes the making of futures as a cultural activity.
Specifically, in Appadurai’s scheme, culture is linked to the open-ness of human life by the fact that our assemblages of representation, disposition, practice and thought are the media for the development of two distinctive capacities for being otherwise. The first of these is the ability to imagine forms of human life as forms of life worth living: what Appadurai calls the capacity to aspire (126). The second is the capacity to devise the social ecologies, the material, institutional and intellectual arrangements, within which lives worth living are plausibly livable: a dimension of what Appadurai calls “the social life of design” (257ff). In both respects, Appadurai is pursuing a set of interests in the construction of worth as an aspect of human activity, in a way that marks the book, among many other things, as contributing to the renewal of a broader anthropological interest in questions to do with value (Graeber 2001, Lambek 2008, Robbins 2013). The capacity to aspire is a cultural one, Appadurai says, because it involves positioning oneself with evermore confidence and competence in a field that comprises, not just individual means and ends, but collective understandings of the good that make those means and ends the elements of value that they are. At stake here are the many visions of well-being and of worthiness in human life that people have developed and continue to develop in the context of particular forms of collective social existence. And likewise for the latter: Appadurai says that forms of life can be re-conceived in the active voice, not as so many given patterns of culture, but rather as the pragmatic, contested, aspirational making of valued social environments in the face of all the forces that oppose such human designs.
To put Appadurai’s argument in other words, the capacity to be otherwise that we call culture is a vector of ethical reaching: a capacity that always stands at least partially, potentially, in a negative, even in a critical relationship to given states of affairs--rather than simply reflecting or affirming them. But then what is the worldly life of this capacity? Where do we find it, and how can it be nurtured? Again, two things stand out within Appadurai’s account of this. One is that, being cultural, the capacity to aspire is not an individual property but a relational one. One cannot hope to be otherwise except through others. But the second is that it is not the default condition of a social existence either. For one thing, it is unequally distributed: more readily at hand for the rich and powerful than for the poor (188). For another thing, and this is the major theme of the essay that gives the book its title, the capacity to aspire involves “an ethics of possibility” or of open-ness, and this is an ethos Appadurai puts in stark contrast with another one, an “ethics of probability” that animates much of our social life as well. The latter is the ethic of the contemporary financialized economy as he portrays it, and so we come to the question of the relationship between culture and economy in his argument. In the present age, as Appadurai describes it, the relationship between culture and economy is an antagonistic relationship between two kinds of spirit or ethos: one in which the diversity of collective goods is imagined, another in which the impulse is instead to manage risks. What global futures emerge for us in coming years will depend on which of these spirits is victorious. 
There is much to find appealing and inspiring in this argument. I am especially drawn to Appadurai’s conception of culture as value-creating praxis, which I think will help us return to a range of questions that were once at the critical edge of anthropology, but which we have left unanswered since we turned away from realist approaches to the analysis of culture (Turner 1984; Munn 1986; Comaroff and Comaroff 1991). But I also want to ask questions of Appadurai’s scheme, and especially about how far the economy of our time is really susceptible to being understood in terms of the language of spirit.
In that regard, Appadurai’s model is Weber, of course, and especially the question that Weber leaves to his readers at the very end of The Protestant Ethic, when he asks what will take the place of a Calvinist ethos that gave up its life as spirit when the technical and the institutional forms of modern capitalism objectified and materialized it. Appadurai says that the calculation of risk is more and more becoming the logic of this economy. (In the final part of the book, he also describes the emergence of a “spirit of uncertainty” (238) that gambles on the inadequacy of the instruments or devices that pursue such calculations, but the ethics of probability is nonetheless the driving force at work.) When Appadurai uses this argument to take on Callon (1998) and others who see the economy as an actor-network, I find myself in sympathy—but asking nonetheless what would have given rise to probabilistic thinking, as well as to gambles against it, if the calculating devices themselves are indeed not enough to explain the kind of spirit that puts them to work. Here I claim no historical expertise at all, but surely one could speculate that spirit and device alike are responses to the experience of an objective condition of practical uncertainty, created by the irrational and impersonal logic of capital as an overarching socio-historical reality. Ever since The Social Life of Things, Appadurai has resisted any attempt to conceive of capitalism as, in his words there, repeated here, “a vast impersonal machine, governed by large-scale movements” (52). But might it not be the case that the sheer abstraction, inscrutability, and crisis-ridden gyrations of a “vast impersonal machine” of growth are themselves the very conditions of necessity for the kinds of calculations, risks and gambles that Appadurai identifies. It is certainly an option Weber himself considered and left in play, when he talked about the way that spirit in general had fled from the metal forms of modernity. 
If this were the case, it would mean that several parts of Appadurai’s story could be narrated somewhat differently. It might help us think about modernization theory in another light, for example. Appadurai says that modernization theory is misunderstood when it is regarded as essentially, or formally, Eurocentric (228), a point with which I agree. But he also says that modernization theory is an example of a species of thought that he labels as trajectorist, or focused on progressive developmentalism. And trajectorism is a habit of thought that he does describe as peculiarly Western both in origin and in impulse (224). No doubt there are resources in the Western tradition on which such thinking could base itself, but within that same tradition one could just as easily find resources for cyclical and other nonlinear ways of considering time. Surely the question is not whether Western thought is itself trajectorist, but under what historical conditions its trajectorist possibilities become the most compelling ones by comparison with others. Could we not see historical experiences of capitalist growth as one major spur towards towards this selection of linear images? This would certainly help explain why we see a similar faith in development emerge in the non-Western world at times in the modern age as well, which we cannot do so readily when we root that faith in uniquely Western legacies.
More broadly, though, to take seriously the impersonal logic of capital would mean that the vectors of culture and economy relate to one another not as two competing spirits in the modern age, but rather as spirit and system. We would have to take Marx as seriously as Weber in constructing such an account of the economy, and then we would have to ask in what ways capital relates to the conditions of possibility for culture. If culture is the condition for the capacity to be otherwise, then what we would have to consider here is the relationship between capitalism and freedom. In such an account, the limit to the capacity to aspire would be more than its unequal distribution between the rich and the poor, as much as that is important. Understanding the limit to the capacity to aspire would require that we also trace how human action everywhere is mediated, deferred and disconnected through its dependence on the forms of economic life dictated by the peculiar nature of capital. And although he would not put it this way, I think this is where Appadurai’s conception of culture as freedom takes us almost necessarily.

Hylton White is senior lecturer and head of department at the Anthropology Department, University of the Witwatersrand

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Of Markets and markets

Gautam Bhan explores divergences in attitudes towards debt in his response to Arjun Appadurai's lecture, Thoughts on a Capitalist Imaginary.

Reflecting on complex arguments while they are still percolating in one’s brain is, as this reflection is bound to be, an incomplete and possibly even unfair task on both the reader and writer. Nevertheless, in the spirit of thinking out loud in the Johannesburg Workshop, the words below offer first reflections on Arjun Appadurai’s talk Thoughts on a Capitalist Imaginary that opened the current edition of the JWTC.
Appadurai’s context is a moment of deep financialisation at a time of late capitalism with a possibly new mode of production that – and herein lies the contest at the heart of the argument – he argues must push us to rethink the commodity form itself. Looking at the form of the derivative, he says that Marx’s core concept of relative surplus is no longer extracted by increasing the productivity of workers but by a new medium: the leveraging and circulation of debt, or risk upon risk. It is debt then that becomes the base of accumulating relative surplus, of creating value. This debt becomes available to the financial machine through its deep inroads into everyday life. We cannot refuse debt, he says, to live, access shelter, educate ourselves, protect our health. Though this “we” is unevenly distributed across and within different parts of the world, “we” are increasingly, he argues, debt-labourers rather than wage-labourers.
Value then is no longer simply related to price. Commodities begin to merge into commoditized assets rather than take other more familiar, tangible, historical forms. Here the echoes of the many bankers, heads of state and economists throwing their hands up saying that had no way to say how much the bundled, securitized, sold and re-sold American housing mortgages were really worth at the peak of the foreclosure crisis resound convincingly. A trading and investment bank, argues Appadurai, cannot tell you with any accuracy whether it made money at the end of the month or not – value can no longer be calculated in the double entries of the bookkeeper’s accounts.  
How do people enter this imagination? They are, as argued above, debt-labourers. They are also, however, agents of resistance. Resistance comes in the more recognizable form of debt refusal (which he acknowledges but argues is limited) and his own claim: the possibility of socializing and democratizing debt itself. He favours the latter because, he argues, extracting future value (the very idea of debt) is not inherently “bad” – the question is of who controls it and to what ends. This is certainly the moment when one’s spine tingles with a slight nervousness: can the very mechanisms of debt that he describes as being so opaque submit to an idea of control, let alone a democratic one?
I want to engage briefly with only two of the ideas here: one is to take seriously the unevenness of debt penetration in everyday life given our task to think from Johannesburg and the South; and the other to think about the institutional challenges of a resistance that seeks to “socialize and democratize debt.”
The first response is to think about what place a market of derivatives has with markets of everyday life. This is not to argue that global financial markets are not connected to each other across geography and scale and that they influence the local street corner as much as the stock exchange. It is instead to say that the materialities, specificities and degrees of these connections matter. Global processes and flows localize through what Anna Tsing described as “friction.” That friction is an essential space for those of us concerned with place and with the local. How does this new system of value impact markets that run on other modes of production – informal markets, industrial markets, or even national markets of countries “off the map”? Appadurai is right to point out that countries like India were insulated from the worst of the global financial crisis in 2008 because they were not as deeply enmeshed in these cycles of debt-fuelled financialisation. Appadurai argues that it is possible that such enmeshment could just be a matter of time but is it possible that such a “trajectorist” (to use another of his own terms) logic is not inevitable? That resistance could also take the form of refusing this enmeshment?
Edgar Pieterse’s presentation on the following day outlines one kind of friction. He argues that for a significant many across Africa, the future will remain in informal, vulnerable and uncertain work and shelter. For the markets that such places and urban residents produce, what is the imagination and reality of debt? What are the circuits of production and the generation of value? I am not saying that Appadurai claims that a move from wage labour to debt labour is happening in such places. I am seeking to translocate his inquiry to ask it from a different site and push us to think: how would we reconstruct his arguments if we asked them from the informal market rather than the New York stock exchange? How would we think about what kind of representation of the Market the derivatives market really is. Such a translocation could allow us to recalibrate the relative location, power and spread of the debt economy vis-à-vis the Market.
The second point of engagement is to think about resistance. I echo Appadurai’s relative lack of enthusiasm about debt refusal but for a different reason. In transitioning economies (and trajectorist words re-enter our dialogue!) like India, debt remains a sign of social and economic mobility; the ability to arrive and be able to partake in formal market mechanisms not just to alleviate emergency or disaster spending or to smooth consumption but to actually improve the quality of one’s life and enter onto a trajectorist, progressive narrative of upward mobility. The hunger of many Indian residents is not to refuse debt’s pervasive hold on their life as in the US but, in fact, to desperately seek an ability to harness it.
Yet, at least now, even this harnessing is particular. To generalize and speak unforgivably broadly in categories like “India,” debt cannot be seen outside a culture of very high savings in the country. Debt is something that one enters post-saving, as a reward for financial discipline and always alongside it. Debt default in India is a story of the poor, not of those in the formal financial system. It is a story of farmer suicides and micro-lending, though the latter allows a much easier connection to Appadurai’s global financial circuits of debt and value. In short: to be in debt remains a deeply ethically, spiritually and social difficult space for most Indians, even those with the financial means to be able to leverage and afford it.
Yet Appadurai’s other option of refusing financialisation – to socialize and democratize debt— immediately makes one wary precisely because the institutions and processes that are to be reclaimed remain so unclear. If the very premise of a hyper-financialisation is its opacity, how and where does one begin to think about controlling or re-directing this set of actions towards different ends? Here, my final thought is to think tangibly about the derivative as a contract, one that then can be regulated and adjusted through controlling its terms – refusing, for example, the ability of banks and traders to have contracts that do not have the limits of time and closure that we expect them to.
Across the global South, the challenge to reclaim institutions may be a different one from the North – if the latter has economic institutions that are undemocratic, opaque, protected and powerful; the former, in many ways, has institutions that struggle to exist and remain effective – either to ride a new global financial value ride or to resist it.
Gautam Bhan teaches at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Thoughts on the Capitalist Imaginary

Arjun Appadurai 

Capitalism today surrounds and saturates us in a way it never did before. In its home regions, notably in the United States, it has taken the form of deep financialization. Finance now far exceeds the sphere of production and manufacture of industrial goods. Since the early 1970’s we have had the rapid development of a host of financial instruments, which were barely imaginable in the time of Karl Marx. The breakthrough that made this financial explosion possible was the idea that risk itself could be monetized, allowing a small set of actors to take risks on risks. This is the core of the logic of the derivative, an instrument that has allowed financial technicians and managers to make virtually every part of our everyday lives susceptible to monetization. In this way, housing has now been turned into a machine for monetizing mortgages, the environment has been monetized through carbon trading and many other derivatives, education has been captured through sophisticated methods of creating student debt, health and insurance have been thoroughly penetrated by models of risk, arbitrage and bets on the future. In short, every day life is linked to capital not so much by the mechanism of the surplus value of labor but through making us all risk-bearers, whose aggregate risk can be endlessly combined and recombined to provide new forms of risk-taking and profit-making by the financial industries. We are all laborers now, regardless of what we do, insofar as our primary reason for being is to enter into debt through being forced to monetize the risks of health, security, education, housing and much else in our lives.  
www.hermes-press.com, Capitalism is Democracy
This situation is most visible in the advanced capitalist countries and hence the financial collapse of 2008 was primarily felt and amplified in these very countries. But very few countries in the world escaped the effects of the collapse, since finance capital had been spreading its activities worldwide for at least the last 30 years. Still, many parts of the global South, including South Africa, did not experience the shock of the collapse as profoundly as did the United States and Europe. The buffers that created this measure of insulation were primarily that the new derivative logics, creating multiple loops between debt, risk and speculation, were less advanced in these countries. Another way to put it is that in the countries of the global South, the process by which all debt is made potentially monetizable, through derivative instruments, has been less rapid and more uneven than it has been in the countries of the North Atlantic.
However, the global spread of the capitalist imaginary has by no means been arrested or compromised. Banks, hedge funds and insurance companies are aggressively pushing their way into new markets, seeking to lobby for legislation that will allow them to bring the same untrammelled debt markets from which they profited (and which also crashed in 2008) to the countries of the global South. Thus, it is only a matter of time before the countries of the global South also find themselves fully exposed to the volatility, inscrutability and extra-legality of the derivative-based financial markets of the North. As James Baldwin once said in another context, “no more water, the fire next time”.
One of the many challenges we now face is how to resist the sense that this global process is inevitable and that it cannot be subverted. The question is: what sort of politics needs to be produced to resist it? The main answer that has emerged in various parts of the world is debt-refusal, as in important segments of the “Occupy ‘ movement. Debt-refusal by mortgage owners, students, pension-holders and others certainly is a legitimate political tactic, insofar as it offers an immediate tool for starving the beast of financial capitalism. But is it enough? Is it even the best way of making capitalism work for the 99%?
In this lecture, I develop the outlines of a different view of financial capitalism, one that does not see the logic of the derivative as inherently inequitable or evil.  My point of departure is to return to Marx, but through a financial lens. Marx’s central insight about the workings of industrial capitalism was (in the three volumes of Capital) to notice the distinction between absolute and relative surplus value. In simple terms, absolute surplus value was to be found in increasing the amount of labor that a firm could apply to producing commodities for sale, as by increasing the number of workers or by increasing the length of the workday. Relative surplus value, on the other hand, was generated by improvements in technology, workplace organization or other means by which labor productivity could be increased without hiring more workers or paying for more labor time. This is how a given firm could compete with other firms which were producing the same commodity. The key to the appropriation of relative surplus value was to make a given amount of labor produce more profit, without increasing wages. The difference was profit in the hands of the capitalist.
Today’s financial capitalism, which Marx could not have entirely foreseen in his day, does not primarily work through the making of profit in the commodity sphere, though a certain part of the capitalist economy still operates in this sphere. By far the larger portion works by making profit on the monetization of risk and risk is made available to the financial markets through debt in its myriad forms. All of us who live in a financialized economy generate debt in many forms: consumer debt, housing debt, health debt, and others related to these. Capitalist forms also operate through debt (since borrowing on the capital markets has become much more important than issuing stock or “equity”). The complex technical issue is how consumer debt becomes the basis of corporate debt and vice versa.
From this point of view, the major form of labor today is not labor for wages but rather labor for the production of debt. Some of us today are no doubt wage-laborers, in the classic sense. But many of us are in fact debt-laborers, whose main task is to produce debt, which can then be further monetized for profit by financial entrepreneurs who control the means of the production of profit through monetizing debts. The main vehicle for this form of profit-making is the derivative, and thus the derivative is the central means by which relative surplus value is produced in a financialized economy.
From this it follows that the key to transforming the current form of financial capitalism is to seize and appropriate the means of the production of debt, in the interest of the vast class of debt producers, rather than the small class of debt-manipulators. From this point of view, it is not debt as such which is bad, since it allows us to bring future value into the present. The challenge, rather, is to socialize and democratize the profit produced by monetization of debt, so that those of us who actually produce debt can also be the main beneficiaries of its monetization. This vision of the nature of the capitalist imaginary is what I seek to elaborate and justify in the remainder of my lecture.

Arjun Apppadurai (New York University), is the author of The Future as a Cultural Act (Verso, 2012)

Monday, June 24, 2013

Cities of Ideas

Sohei Nishino, Diorama Map Night (2009-2010)
Achille Mbembe

Five years ago, a group of scholars at Wits University launched an independent intellectual platform devoted to the development of critical thought. Convinced that a city is first and foremost an idea, and that there is no democracy without cities of ideas, they called it The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism.  Little did they know that this penny-less initiative would gradually propel the old   mining town into one of the most exciting Southern Hemispheric capitals of ideas. Yet, that Johannesburg is today the most sought-after African destination for key global thinkers remains a secret. Achille Mbembe explains why.

The end of Apartheid coincided with the coming to age of globalization, that is, the integration of the world through large flows of goods, capital, people and ideas. It should have heralded an epoch of unparalleled creativity and intellectual ferment in South Africa and in the rest of the Continent. For this to happen would have required novel ways of imagining the relation between public culture, democracy and critical thought.
Instead we bought into too narrow a definition of what value and human needs are, and too vulgar a conception of what material welfare and freedom stand for. As a result of this structural myopia, instrumental reason and mindless utilitarianism have become the main currencies by which the value of everything is determined.

The World Is Moving South and East, So Is Theory

Our moral imagination having been colonized by the worship of material objects, luxury fever and the drift toward consumerism have paved the way for a set of false assumptions about how the world works and what we should be doing in it. An impoverished conception of knowledge and whom it is supposed to serve and a crude understanding of economic rationality today reign supreme.
The naïve belief is that coupled with science and technology, market capitalism will sort out most of our problems. Complex social facts such as mass poverty, joblessness, hunger, disease and illiteracy are treated as if these were purely technical matters. No wonder the post-1994 sense of being at the edge of a future has quickly vanished.
Such a capitulation is happening at a distinct global historical juncture. For centuries, Western hegemony over the planet relied on theory just as it did on science and technology. After a thousand years of world ascendancy, the Euro-American archive is finally running dry. The world is moving East and the Southern Hemisphere has become the epicentre of contemporary global transformations.
Here, fundamental problems of poverty and livelihood, equity and justice are still for the most part unresolved. A huge amount of energy is still put into eliminating want, making life possible or simply maintaining it. People marginalized by the development process live under conditions of great personal risk. In order to survive, many are willing to gamble with their lives and with those of others.  Power relations and the antagonisms that shape late capitalism are redefined here in ways and forms not seen at earlier historical periods.
The paradoxes of mobility and closure, of connection and separation, of continuities and discontinuities between the inside and the outside, the local and the global pose new challenges to intellectual inquiry, critical thought and policy-making and implementation. They can no longer be solely accounted from within orthodox forms of political, social or cultural analysis.
Moreover, from Mexico to Lagos, from Sao Paolo to Mumbai and Shanghai, the production of ideas for the planet’s future is increasingly originating from the global South. This is where novel ways of articulation of politics and culture are in the making. And yet this is also where the lag between actual social processes and our efforts to make sense of them conceptually is nowhere near to be closed.
Institutions such as The Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), the Center for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA) and intellectual platforms such as The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC) play a key role in the ongoing redrawing of the global intellectual map which started during the era of decolonization. They show that a city like Johannesburg is first and foremost an idea and there is no democracy without cities of ideas.
To consolidate its fledging position on the global map of cities of ideas, Johannesburg will need to firmly write itself in the alternative circuits of intellectual and cultural circulation that have emerged during the last quarter of the twentieth-century. It will have to become a node in the worldwide dissemination of ideas and thought; a major intersection in the  worldwide circulation and translation of texts; an Afropolitan center where global debates are de-nationalized and national debates made global; a place where the world can be studied and interpreted. 

Structural Myopia

Unfortunately, while these major changes have been unfolding, South Africa has witnessed a surge in problem-oriented research that has become attractive to government and private funding agencies because of its putative relevance to “real-world” challenges.
Funding scarcity in turn has led numerous scholars to work as NGO entrepreneurs and consultants. Instead of boosting research capacity and orienting quality knowledge production toward the kind of critical and theoretical thought from which new ideas emerge, funding practices by state agencies and private US foundations have depleted South Africa’s capacity to produce global thought.
In order to survive, most research institutes are forced to stockpile short-term research contracts, to shift rapidly from one topic to another, a practice which increases the atomization of knowledge rather than thorough understanding of entire fields.
The popularization of instrumental research has not resulted in as big an improvement of knowledge as might have been expected. Subservient to the needs of the State and capital, it has even less so contributed to a consolidation of a democratic public sphere.
Liberal political principles of equality, the rule of law, civil liberty, individual autonomy and universal inclusion are being gradually eroded by the pursuit of pure power and pure profit without any other goal but power and profit itself – a power indifferent to ends or needs except its own. 
Almost twenty years after freedom, an impoverished conception of democracy as the right to consume is on the ascendency, making it difficult to envisage a different economy, different social relations, different ends, needs and ways of life. Whether we do indeed want the responsibility of authoring our own lives and whether we actively want to pursue our own substantive freedom and equality, let alone that of others, is in doubt.
Critical intellectual practices are therefore more necessary than ever. Some of these critical practices are facilitated by the rapid transformations in contemporary media.We will not entirely exit a society based on commodities, wages, money and technology. But we urgently need to rediscover something in social life that is not privatizable; that is immeasurable, that is priceless and cannot, as a consequence, be bought or sold. By withdrawing from the domination of the market those spheres of human activity in which instrumental rationality does not suffice, we will create the preconditions for freedom and the existence of society itself.

Mbembe is a research professor at The Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, Wits University. His forthcoming book, Critique de la raison nègre, will be published in Paris in October.