Wednesday, August 19, 2009

“Teachable moments” - David Theo Goldberg on the Militarization of Society

David Theo Goldberg

Political figures in America, including President Barack Obama, lined up to call the fierce disputes of meaning and significance that surrounded the recent arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. a “teachable moment” for the nation. But quite what was to be taught—to whom and how; if anything—remains unclear. Most Americans, for example, did not need to be taught why ‘racial profiling’ was widely invoked as a frame to explain Gates’ arrest and anger: terms like ‘racial profiling’ are keywords in a national vocabulary on citizenship and the law; institutionalized racism permeates the American everyday. Likewise, the media’s ‘expert analysis’ on the conduct of the Cambridge police sounded an old conversation—looped sound-bites on the difficulty of naming what constitutes reasonable use of force by the state in a post-9/11 era. Gates’ story was not exactly one episode in a series—in fact, the media made it newsworthy by playing up the distracting, juicier specifics, all unusually well-documented—but it was rendered familiar with the effect that necessary and new questions went unasked. Indeed, the political furor that broke in July 2009 was rather largely to do with confirming that no man—tenured, Harvard professors in leafy, literate suburbs, no less—stands exempt from America’s logic of militarization par excellence. Examining the logic—looking to the nature of American fluency with the practices and consequences of racial policing; to national strategies of domestic governance by force and Americans’ long co-presence with it—may help us explain why, in the afterwards of Gates, hoped-for public teaching moments on violence, race, and the American state failed to materialize (national lessons in why the U.S. incarcerates the greatest percentage of its population, for example; why felony disenfranchisement and racial disparities in the criminal justice system leave almost a fifth of African American men unable to vote, etc.).

David Goldberg’s capstone seminar in Johannesburg, De-Militarizing Society, developed an elegant line of analysis on the nature of modern power and its work in institutionalizing confrontation in the co-making of society and the state—a helpful analytic in elucidating events as politically muddled as Gates’ arrest. Professor Goldberg called for a close reading of how modern societies are ordered by a logic of militarization and are constituted and reinforced by modes of governance akin to war—a vision of the life of power in which all basic relations of force in society might be examined more richly as relations of war. Goldberg took flight from Michel Foucault’s 1975-1976 Collège de France lectures, Il Faut Défendre La Société, to deliver ten claims on the relations of militarization, governmentality, and the modern subject. His premise: Modern states require a strong military, a ‘culture of militarization’, and militarized modes of governance that reach deep inside the social body to assert their sovereignty effectively. Extending and refining Foucault’s thesis, and weaving together strands of the workshop’s conversations, Goldberg set in motion an especially powerful series of tensions, paradoxes, and relations that proffer new kinds of questions on power and society, in which a logic of exclusion (from outside and from within) becomes the foundational practice for governance and social belonging. On militarization’s relation to political economy, for example, he traced the ways states find afterlives for technologies innovated in war in times of political peace and use war to forge ways out of depression and unemployment.

Professor Goldberg’s careful argument came alive as he outlaid examples of militarization, war of-and-in the everyday, and the governance of the social by violence: mandated military service; the privatization of state prisons; national anthems and civic parades; the implementation of a ‘working day’; CCTV; volunteerism. But, as likely Foucault would approve, Goldberg also actively encouraged analysis of the messy case-study and the unfitting, unfinished example: One recalls, for instance, New Orleans' residents begging for military assistance after Katrina in a bifurcated moment of state abandonment and spectacular state violence; or, as Julia Hornberger superbly describes, the uncanny turning of many African migrants and refugees in Johannesburg for protection from the South African police they fear in the wake of xenophobic cleansing. Avoiding a totalizing theoretical argument, Professor Goldberg invited participants to think through personal examples and experiences: these included the phenomena of ‘military police’ and the scandalous prisoner treatment at Abu Ghraib—two cases that show how militaries are both subject to and outside the law, but also how the logic of militarization relies on an elsewhere and outside; and the emotional, affective elements and tactics of war-making, such as ‘shock and awe’. Closing the Johannesburg workshop with unsurpassed energy, de-militarizing society—as much as subject for critical thinking as a call for political action—can only begin, Goldberg argued, after the meaty logics and paradoxes of power are teased apart.

The complexities around the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. present a loud case of the militarization of society that Goldberg’s project helps situate. Precisely because the long militarization of race, policing, and state violence in America is traceable and elusive, familiar yet unspoken, much did not need to be said about Gates in public. But people also watched the Gates arrest closely to see what kind of reaction Obama would make: it was Obama’s test, of sorts, in choosing to confront or acknowledge, or not, a national, public secret. And, for a brief moment, I think many felt a “teachable moment” had arrived, as Obama’s thoughts came out in off-the-cuff one-liners to journalists—describing the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, as “acting stupidly.” (We see here a defining element of the Obama Presidency: this is a President who does not mean what he says—a refreshing contrast from his predecessor who frightened the world by believing everything he said and needing no evidence for action). Obama's decision to hold beers of reconciliation between Gates and Crowley thus took many in America by surprise. A national “teachable moment” on the militarization of society may not have convened in July—after all, swarmed by reporters as they left the White House, Crowley and Gates returned to the language of war, of battle-lines redrawing and “agreeing to differ,” and of the episode as a 'truce' without apology. But by allowing two 'sides' to sit down and talk; for the citizen to speak up to the state; calling for dialogue over violence, and going against police tactics in America of using arrest as a method to qualm assembly—perhaps we can allow ourselves to read Obama's 'reconciliation' as a tentative act of de-militarizing society.

James Williams

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

At stake in the South

Isabel Hofmeyr

During their studio session, “Cultures of the Political”, Sarah Nuttall and Isabel Hofmeyr offered us two modes for understanding cultural forms of the political in the Southern Hemisphere. Nuttall’s could be identified as ‘the national contemporary’ and Hofmeyer’s ‘the historical international’. Nuttall concerns herself with contemporary, urban South African youth culture and the possibilities it offers for yielding a viable cross-racial South African city, namely Johannesburg. “How are young Africans shaping the [South] African modern?” and can we “deprovincialize Africa and African self-stylization” toward “developing new theories of modernity?” she asks. While Hofmeyer’s project is more historical—the Indian Ocean as a political, economic and cultural construct that fostered and continues to foster a set of relations among the countries and people that reside along it—similarly it challenges us to rethink ‘the global’ and ‘the local’ that have rendered South Africa. Both ask us to take into account alternative imaginings of South Africa that consider the South African nation and the Southern Hemisphere as sites of universalisms.

Interestingly these positings of Southern universalisms, particularly Hofmeyr’s, produced heated debate amongst the workshop about the real possibilities of these kinds of projects. What is the “Global South” exactly?, one participant asked. Another highlighted the romantic nature of the Indian/African solidarity that Hofmeyr’s project supposedly requires. While still another wondered at the correlation between the recent prevalence of this kind of work on India and Africa and the emergence of India and China as semi-imperial powers. Hofmeyr herself acknowledged the difficulty of this kind of excavation during her introduction to her work and throughout the session. Yet, it seems to me that Hofmeyr’s project provided the idiom through which our collective could begin an earnest exchange on what exactly it means to theorize the “South”, as a cultural, political, economic and social construct, from the “South”. The notion of the South as culturally particular and different from the Northern Hemisphere seemed to come most into question during this session. As a feeble gesture toward a conclusion (at least of this year’s workshop) I would like to use a considerable portion of my blog to consider why the South is so contested as I understand the South to be of the utmost importance to our gathering.

Hofmeyr’s Indian Ocean operates as a “Common”, to borrow from Michael Hardt, that need not be inherently Eurocentric. (All oceans, seas, bodies of water can represent the Common as international law dictates that they cannot be owned by individuals but I want to think about the exchange of ideas and commodities, and the movements of people specific to Indian Ocean as a loosely bounded entity as a singular political and cultural Common.) It is/was a space wherein people moved, were displaced, resettled, goods, plants, and animals were traded, sometimes de-nativized from one space and made native to elsewhere. If we put Hofmeyr’s Indian Ocean alongside Gilroy’s Black Atlantic in some ways (Southern) Africa becomes The Common betwixt these two Commons, connecting them. In fact, we begin to have an interlinked set of cultural entities that perhaps can be understood as the South. I use cultural here in lieu of political or economic as provocation because it occurs to me that it is thinking of the South as cultural phenomenon that is most problematic for us. The histories of the parts of the Globe understood to comprise the South share similar trajectories of conquest, colonization, expropriation and finally political independence from colonial empires in the form of the nation-state. Often this shared grammar of political ‘modernity’ is countered by fiercely local assertions of cultural difference.

Articulating a methodology for comparing the function of power and ‘the political’, either colonial or national, through the paradigm of the Global South (or the Southern Hemisphere) seems far less problematic than doing so for exploring the cultural “entanglement”[1], which transgresses boundaries of the local (I think, we could easily substitute ‘authentic’ here for local). For example, the much cited instance of the Xhosa woman who wins the Eastern Cape pageant for Miss India South Africa because, according to the judges, she offers the best performance of “Indianness” and the riot that ensues.[2] Clearly, for the majority of the judges the contestants were to be judged based upon the authenticity of their representations of Indian culture, while for the audience it was also, perhaps more so, about the cultural (or racial) authenticity of the woman presenting that cultural representation. Is there something more than coincidental here regarding the gendered stakes of this kind of representation of the local? Partha Chatterjee’s suggestion in The Nation and Its Fragments that the site of the home, domesticity—the sphere of the woman—become the embodiment of the (Indian) nation during anti-colonial struggle may shed some light here on the crisis that thinking about the Southern Hemisphere as a cultural space engenders. While not wanting to essentialize Chatterjee’s argument to include all nations that comprise the South, I would like to suggest that perhaps the resistance to the South as a construct when taken on by cultural theorists, presumably to think about culture, is due to our acceptance of the notion of cultures as local, embodiments of particular domesticities somewhat sealed off from the ‘corrupting’ machinery of colonial states and deregulated global markets. The problem that Hofmeyr’s work necessarily introduces is “what comprises the local if not culture”?

This leads me to leave off with two central questions. First, though many scholars of literary and cultural studies seemed to ask this in varying ways over the course of the workshop, what is the role of literary and cultural studies in understanding the South and theorizing from it? Secondly, but related, what are the limits of the South as a theoretical paradigm by which we can understand and make possible an ethics of mutuality?

Victoria J. Collis-Buthelezi

[1] Sarah Nuttall develops and explores her theory of entanglement in Entanglement: Literary and cultural reflections on post-apartheid. Entanglement, Nuttall writes, “is a term which may gesture toward a relationship or set of social relationships that is complicated, ensnaring, in a tangle, but which also implies a human foldness”, in contraindication to the human apartness that was/is apartheid (1). Thus, it may entail similar processes of inter-cultural and interracial mixing as creolization and mestissaje but accounts for these in contexts (such as the South African toward which Nuttall develops this concept almost exclusively in her book) in which they are more opaque and resisted or denied by hegemonic narratives of belonging to such contexts.

[2] Both Eric Worby and Sarah Nuttall made reference to this incident during their respective sessions.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Affective Geographies: a conversation on thinking and feeling (from) the south

Liz Gunner introducing Sarah Nuttall

In an essay in the recent collection Load Shedding, Sarah Nutall writes: “The days and nights of mid-August slid slowly by. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were living out the long end of something, or the end of a long something. Was it just me?”. In the essay, Nutall’s concern with feeling out the contemporary political moment, with mapping the affective landscape of a particular historical, and geographical, political and relational moment is addressed through the texts, conversations, strolls, fears, car rides both fast and meandering, public and private anxieties, imaginaries, and aesthetics that make up a late winter month in Johannesburg.

This concern with understanding what (contemporary, historical) political moments feel like infused and oriented Nutall’s studio session conversation with historian Isabel Hofmeyr, where it was explored through a set of personal-political questions. Introducing the studio session on “Cultures of the Political,” Nutall proposed a conversation around a series of related questions: how to read South Africa (in the world)? How to (read a) shift from concerns with difference to ‘new questions’ in and on ‘the new South Africa’? How to read the political in the present? Rather than offering discrete answers or diagnostic statements, the session took shape as an exploration of intellectual auto-geographies, a consideration of the effects of place and the place of affect in thinking from the South.

Both Nutall and co-conversationist Isabel Hofmeyr described their theoretical and topical trajectories as journeys that posed questions and concerns regarding intellectual place, political location, and relations within and across historically constituted spaces. In orienting the discussion around these questions, Nutall suggested an exploration of South Africa’s ‘after Apartheid’ moment as a space marked neither by a post-Apartheid concern with trauma and hope nor by the normative concerns of a post-colonial studies produced in (and for) New York and London. Nutall’s entry-point into this moment hinged on her own movement through the idea of Johannesburg – a city of surface and depth, as she described it – and through the city as concrete entity; the city that slides past the car window, in Nutall’s account, is positioned beyond the radical limits of a politics of difference. Her concern with the entanglements, contradictions, aspirations and imaginations that constitute Johannesburg, and which the city in turn makes possible, focused especially on rethinking the politics of difference, depth and hope in favor of thinking horizontally about the affective landscape and modes of self-fashioning made possible across the contemporary city of Johannesburg.

Hofmeyr’s comments also hinged on an active questioning of established theoretical geographies. Situating her responses in light of her own position as a Cold War intellectual trained to see the world through the puzzle-piece lens of area studies, Hofmeyr described her work as fundamentally concerned with the movement and travel of people, objects, ideas. Her study of Indian Ocean print culture in the 19th and 20th century, provides – among other things – a starting point for reconsidering the uneasy solidarities and cleavages between South (or southern) Africa and India in ways that build on, but are not reducible to, shared histories of non-alignment. In seeking to explore and understand long-standing political sympathies without erasing personal antipathies and preconceptions, she examined the ways in which changing geopolitical context effected but did not determine the kinds of partial, unsteady, but significant transnational relationships made possible by the particularities of the Indian Ocean over time.

For Nutall, Johannesburg – idea, object, experience, relationship, place – as a site in and through which the limits of postcolonial theory became visible, where understanding the present meant tuning one’s analytical ear not only to the deep historical chords through which the present emerged into being but to the slippery, abrasive, planar surfaces of life through which the present is lived. In a context where, Nutall argued, the privatization of many forms of publicity had been accompanied by a simultaneous rendering apersonal of public life, attention to the moods, emotions, affective currents, and stylistic significances of life in the city is a strategic political act. For Hofmeyr, ‘thinking South Africa’ in the context of the Indian Ocean circuits with their deep historical currents and unlikely contemporary bedfellows (from neo-imperial visions to shared practices of cultural resistance) likewise opened up the possibility of moving beyond ‘easy solidarities’, of recasting colonial and post-colonial relationships by decentering the ‘area studies’ of the past, even as she considered the ways in which these new circuits may be ‘emerging’ regions in new geopolitical configurations. The necessity of thinking through partial solidarities, ambivalent sympathies, and relations of hierarchy and domination within and across peripheries and boundaries emerged as central to both discussants’ remarks.

In placing the ‘cultures of the political’ within two distinctively different circuits, the conversationists highlighted questions of affective geography squarely at the center of their discussion. For both commentators, place, space and location emerged as key themes. In response, their comments opened up discussion not only of the relation between culture and politics, mediated through affect, aesthetics, and place, but also of the key aims or propositions of the workshop: the Global South. What – and where and who – counts as ‘the South’? What are the methods we use to think it? What sorts of relationships populate this theoretical and geopolitical space? How do we negotiate and understand the politics of our thinking and what kinds of topics, perspectives, and material do we draw on to do so?

Ramah McKay