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