Sunday, August 22, 2010

Reckoning (with) Wreckages

Sarah Nuttall and Isabel Hofmeyr
In the final studio session of the 2010 JWTC on Tuesday afternoon, “Wreckages of Utopia,” Isabel Hofmeyr, Louise Bethlehem, and Sarah Nuttall invited us to consider new ways of learning from, living in, and even laughing at the “wrecked” spaces of violent (colonial, imperial, and/or religio-nationalist) utopian projects. Each of the panelists reckoned with the past, present, and/or future of certain wreckages, and taken together their comments occasioned, for me, a reflection on the complex, contradictory, and contested temporalities involved in reading the spaces of what we have been referring to as the Global South, as well as on the nature of the intellectual’s relationship/response to these complex temporalities.

Isabel Hofmeyr began the session by framing the spaces of the Global South as sites of “social experiment” (echoing, though with a slightly different emphasis, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff’s earlier articulation of colonies as sites of experimentation for global capital) that are left to deal with the permanent fallout of others’ utopian schemes once the experiments have failed/been defeated and their (colonial, imperial) agents have withdrawn. The spaces of the Global South, she suggested, are the spaces where the archives of these wrecked social experiments are most dense and painful. How, methodologically, Hofmeyr asked, do we deal with these archives? While the dominant response has been to focus on the axis of anti-colonial resistance, Hofmeyr underlined the potential of new or neglected cultural forms and registers: satire, parody, irony; bizarreness and juxtaposition; slapstick and crass comedy; attempts to “recycle the wreckage.” She concluded her comments, however, with a brief description of her own
research into a very different genre, an example of what she labels “South-South Gothic”: the search for a cenotaph marking the resting place of Boer prisoners of war detained in the Punjab during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. This memorial, she suggests, is “haunted with contradictions that address multiple pasts and presents.”

For South Africans, Hofmeyr writes, “reading a roll of Afrikaans names (De Jager, Van der Merwe, Cronje, Fourie, Pienaar) in the Punjab (present day Haryana) is bizarre, estranging and nostalgic.” While in public discourse the Anglo-Boer War had been a “yawn-worthy staple in the school syllabus, part of the arsenal of Afrikaner nationalism,” it nevertheless “haunted private spaces,” and here Hofmeyr recalls the war stories told by her maternal grandmother, which “emerged at odd and unpredictable moments, bizarre and jagged shards whose repetition could never smooth their violent edges.” “To read the Boer names in Ambala Cantonment,” Hofmeyr suggests, was thus to “revisit these semi-forgotten private and public histories from a radically different angle.” Borrowing from Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia, Hofmeyr reads the cenotaph as the “beginnings of an unintentional memorial,” unintentional memorials being about “uncertainty, the unpredictability of change, unexpected juxtapositions, and colliding time schemes.” Thus while in India the graves of Boer prisoners of war have become “ruins on the border of recorded time, passing into an archive of opaque ancientness severed from the present,” the visit by Hofmeyr and her fellow researchers “re-inaugurated them into the present, even if only briefly.” The histories opened up by research into such (“obscure, off-centre”) “lateral linkages” across the spaces of the Global South, Hofmeyr writes, are “discordant, unpredictable, quirky,” but they nevertheless offer a perspective from which to “configure the shards and wreckages of many pasts.” In the ruins of St. Paul’s Church in Ambala – ruins of “more recent provenance,” Hofmeyr notes, a casualty of the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 – British imperialism, anti-colonialism, Afrikaner nationalism and apartheid “become embedded in a landscape shaped by Partition, the Cold War and their consequences.” None of these histories, Hofmeyr insists, are over; instead, their “spectral after-effects continue to accumulate in different parts of the world.” In her comments on Tuesday, Hofmeyr described herself as “the fallout of aspirations for Afro-Asian solidarity,” and in this project she sets out to reckon (multiple senses: she is giving an account of, but also still counting, still calculating) the historical wreckages that continue to accumulate across the spaces of the Global South.

In her comments, Louise Bethlehem offered us two optics, two windows onto another wreckage. She began with a reflection on her own (potential, imagined) movement through the spaces of the “fortress of learning” that she inhabits, a “structure knowingly turned in upon itself”: the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Turned in upon itself, that is, with one exception, an exceptional space that Bethlehem has never thought to enter (and would never, as a woman, be able to enter “simply at will”): the Hecht Synagogue, which opens out onto a panoramic view of the Temple Mount and, in the words of its architect, Ram Karmi, is “at the apex of the faculty’s internal movement and orientation.” Bethlehem asked us to use this window “as a way into the spatial and mnemonic regimes of Israel/Palestine,” a space in which the law of “spatial sovereignty” very forcefully manifests itself. Bethlehem, however, endeavored to “decipher the synagogue window against its own transparency and in favor of the detritus of memory that it occludes,” insisting on reading the material referent itself, the Temple Mount, as “reconstituted through the apparatus of ideological reinscription by the Zionist narrative as Har Habayit, in opposition to Haram-ash-Sharif: the site of al-Aqsa.” This reinscription, Bethlehem suggested, whether nostalgic or messianic/millennial, is the “aftereffect of both spatial and epistemological violence.” Thus while the eye “surveys an inhabited landscape, saturated with the evidence of rival cultural, religious and national claims,” the “visionary gaze of the ideologically interpellated worshipper in the present-day synagogue is uncannily close to the injunction of the founding Zionist forefathers,” who imagined the university as a “Third Temple” of science and a “necessary accessory” to the Jewish national revolution. The gaze, Bethlehem continued, is “momentarily split” between its “emplacement in space” and the “phantasmatic space of possession it extends across the valley, denuding the lived space of the Old City of its historicity, of its being-inhabited.”

To counteract a gaze that registers only the “phantasmatic space of possession,” Bethlehem turned to a different optic, a unique window onto the destruction of Gaza. She discussed “
Postcards for Gaza,” a 2009 exhibit curated by Norma Musih for the dissident organization Zochrot, in which Israeli artists responded to a series of photographs by the Palestinian artist Shareef Sarhan documenting the destruction of Gaza, producing a proliferation of postcards in the gallery space. “What repertoires of resistance, witness and dissent,” Bethlehem asked, “may be extrapolated from this relay?” She entertained two interpretive models for appraising the dissent offered: the first, a “referential politics of witness,” she argued, forecloses the “political desire” of the recirculation, restricting it to “reiteration.” The second model, however, moves from referentiality to affect, and allows for a reading of the recirculation of Sarhan’s images as “an attempt to extract the photograph from an adjudication of the political constrained by the fetishization of mimesis, so as to restore the photograph to its status as fetish – tout court.” Bethlehem elaborated, drawing on the work of William Pietz: “Although the fetish partakes of an irreducible materiality, a materiality as intractable as the wreckage Sarhan photographs, it does not merely resignify material components.” Rather, “it articulates relations between the material, on the one hand, and the structures of desire, belief, affect and narrative in which materiality is embedded, on the other.” Pietz enables Bethlehem to “draw on the notion of transvaluation between cultures” in order to read the transformations of Sarhan’s photographs as “more than simply derivative of a primary mimesis belonging to another,” more than “mere evidence of the colonizer’s narcissism.” Bethlehem then suggested that the “ambivalent production of aesthetic value and symbolic capital as lines inscribed between the lines of wreckage on the part of Israeli artists might profitably be considered as the symptom of a Nachträglichkeit (the Freudian ‘deferred effect’ of anterior trauma) that reinscribes the originary production of value by the Zionist state brought into being through the founding violence of dispossession that is the Palestinian nakba.” In other words, it is “dissidence wrecked in advance by the violence of a utopianism which predates it.” Wrecked in advance, but Bethlehem also emphasized that the project “translates the longue durée of the nakba into a vernacular idiom, a visual repertoire, that constructs fairly radical emplacements for Israeli Jews who consent to participate in Zochrot’s dissident project of counter-memory.”

Bethlehem concluded with a few brief comments on Zochrot itself: the organization (its name translates loosely as “remembering,” but is derived from the plural feminine form of the verb in order to contest the masculinist bias of conventional historical accounts) seeks to raise awareness of the nakba in defiance of the work of a “willed Zionist amnesia,” and attempts to “re-inscribe the memory of pre-1948 Palestinian life on the face of the Israeli landscape from which it has been erased.” Zochrot’s “mnemonic activism” also seeks to crack (לסדוק) “the fortress of that other bastion of Zionist utopianism: the Hebrew language itself.” Its journal is titled Sedek, or “fissure,” and the Zochrot website makes clear that its aim is to “speak the Nakba in Hebrew and in so doing to change the Hebrew language,” “to make it into a language that contains the Nakba (in Arabic), into a language that contains a fissure.” Bethlehem noted that sedek also “preserves echoes of a not-quite homophone: צדק [tzedek] – that is to say, justice,” an echo that she described as “linguistic subversion” present as “willed différance” in the journal’s title. In its “resolute production of discourse, in Hebrew, but also in Arabic and English,” Bethlehem concluded, “Zochrot stages an ongoing allegorical performance of a differently inflected Israeli identity.” We could also understand Bethlehem’s own presentation as such a speaking otherwise: not merely a report on a relay, more than simply descriptive or derivative of (reproductions of) a primary mimesis belonging to another, her comments can perhaps be read as dissidence wrecked in advance, yes, but also with the knowledge that, as in Bethlehem’s own words, the “mis-en-abîme of appropriation does not vitiate the gesture of solidarity” with a project committed to a politics of counter-memory. Each iteration does its own work of reckoning.

If Hofmeyr asks us to think about the ever-accumulating “spectral after-effects” of historical wreckages, to think wreckages as archives, and if Bethlehem insists on the historicity (and inhabited-ness) of the Old City as (a gesture of solidarity with) a politics unfolding in the present, Sarah Nuttall’s comments shifted our attention to the future, and to the future of Johannesburg in particular. She provocatively declared herself to be “quite glad” that utopia has been wrecked, even as she remains interested in the “question of the future” (a provocation that I read as particularly striking given her own earlier acknowledgment, in the introduction to Entanglement, of “the need for a utopian horizon”). Nuttall spoke about “winning the right to address the future,” and about the possibility that “inventing the future” might itself come to be seen as a kind of “critical practice.” Picking up on themes that she has addressed in Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-Apartheid (2009), Nuttall pushed at the limits of a politics of difference – even proposing, again provocatively, to add postcolonial theory itself to the pile of wreckages – and shifted our attention to the idea of desegregation, as a way to think about living in Johannesburg, about making Johannesburg habitable, and, as she argues in Entanglement, as a counterpoint to “a long history, as well as contemporary formations, of suffering based on a distorted universalism and therefore an insulting invocation and enforcement of difference.” In fact, while I have emphasized Nuttall’s focus on the future, there is a more complex approach to temporality at play in her analysis: in the conclusion to Entanglement, she proposes that we leave behind the teleology of “post-apartheid” in favor of a “different theory of social time,” one that acknowledges the simultaneous existence of modes of “nostalgia and melancholy, of inertia and stasis”; modes of “presentism” (which lack a sense of the future); and modes of “invention.” Johannesburg, Nuttall argues, is a city “made up of simultaneity, speed, rapid alternations, and striking levels of mutability and change,” and it thus requires new conceptual categories that “embrace social velocity, the power of the unforeseen and unfolding, and a concept of the social as experiment and artifice versus order and contract.”

These thoughts lead me, finally, to some reflections on the nature of the intellectual’s response to these complex temporalities. In the final pages of Entanglement, Nuttall argues for a “politics of the emergent in South Africa” that “attempts to undercut a theoretical stance of resistance to the present at all costs.” Rejecting models of (Foucauldian) “renunciation” as well as (Adornian) “defamiliarisation,” she instead looks for the “potential, both latent and surfacing, for imminent change.” Where Foucault conceived of “imagining another system” as a “way of occupying the present,” Nuttall instead seeks to “[find] ways within the present system – a new democratic order – for dismantling the past and protecting the future.” I find Nuttall’s account to be both provocative and productive, but I also want to juxtapose it with another recent account of the intellectual’s relation to temporality, that developed by Mark Sanders in the epilogue to Ambiguities of Witnessing: Law and Literature in the Time of a Truth Commission (2007). Sanders describes the “risk of interpreting what is happening in the light of what has come and gone” – the intellectual’s unavoidable “transaction with time” – but also emphasizes that he does so “with a view to a future.” Citing J.M. Coetzee’s essay “Critic and Citizen: A Response,” Sanders proposes that it is possible to “think responsibility in terms of the alterity of time,” the intellectual “introduc[ing] another temporality, counter to the time of an event, to the time appropriated by an event.” The intellectual, Sanders suggests, “strives to bring the current event before what has come and gone, and endeavors to find ways of opening it to futurity.” Sanders writes that he is instructed by Derrida’s Specters of Marx, and indeed both Hofmeyr’s (hauntings, spectral after-effects) and Bethlehem’s (aftereffect[s] of spatial and epistemological violence, phantasmatic spaces) comments invite us to think of the intellectual’s task as, in Derrida’s phrase, a “learn[ing] to live with ghosts.” “No being-with the other,” Derrida writes, “no socius without this with that makes being-with in general more enigmatic than ever for us” (and Nuttall, too, is particularly interested in the question of being-with, of a conviviality haunted by the specters of race and racism). “No justice,” Derrida continues, “seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppressions of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism.” Without this “non-contemporaneity with itself of the living present,” Derrida asks, “what sense would there be to ask the question ‘where?’ ‘where tomorrow?’ ‘whither?’” Part of being an intellectual, in other words, is reckoning with the fact that time is always out of joint (Hamlet’s phrase, to which Derrida points us); that is what, each in her own way, all three of the panelists were telling us as they reckoned (with) the wreckages of utopias.

Joseph Napolitano