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.