Thursday, April 21, 2011

At the Origins of The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism. Personal Recollections (1)

In the course of the academic year 2008, Kelly Gillespie (Anthropology), Julia Hornberger (then at WISER), Eric Worby (School of Social Sciences) and Achille Mbembe (WISER) convened a Working Group on the the theme: Future Tense: Rethinking Radical Politics in a Neo-Liberal Age.

An informal platform, the Working Group operated under the auspices of WISER. Its starting point was that theories of the future and models of radical political change that characterized modernity no longer seemed to provide sufficient understanding of current social upheavals and disruptions. The Working Group brought together about twenty interested scholars from various institutions in the Gauteng. Coming from various disciplinary backgrounds, they nevertheless shared a common interest in the question of radical hope in a world in fragments – a world that, according to the convenors, experienced uncertainty as to its ways of living and being, its politics and its values, its modes of distribution of social goods and of imagining law and the possibility of justice.

The Working Group met several times and its proceedings were concluded with an International Workshop which took place at The Cottages, Johannesburg, from July 2 to 4, 2008.

The call for the Workshop read as follows:

“Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia, published in 1918 in Germany is a passionate account of the importance of the utopian impulse. Throughout the work, and in his subsequent trilogy The Principle of Hope, Bloch is at pains to discover the origins of longing for a better world – what he calls at times ‘imagination’, at times ‘the ethical self’ – and to validate this longing as one of the most profound and relevant forms of social life.

“No matter how the things that still exist respond: hope makes one partial to precisely the well-fabricated [erdichten] but otherwise unverifiable idea. For we are able to escape ourselves, and our quasi-phenomenal form of existence, insofar as we form intelligible characters. Here the world’s labyrinth and the heart’s paradise become visible discretely; the world in the focus imaginarius, in the more hidden, intelligible part of our subjectivity, begins to appear as hope for the future” (Bloch [1918] 2000, 176).

In reading Bloch’s provocative text today, two possible modes of thinking about ‘the future’ in our contemporary world seem to emerge. Firstly, in the spirit of political philosophy, in a world in which substantive claims to grand liberatory politics have been seriously curtailed, and utopias themselves rendered dangerous and passé, what becomes of critical and substantive political engagement when it is not driven by a clear projection of a desired future? If the content of the utopian is no longer fixable, what kinds of political | critical | theoretical projects are possible in the wake of clarifiable futures? Has the withering of the utopian produced, necessarily, the apathetic? Or does all political engagement not rely – explicitly or implicitly – upon some imagination about the future that is underwritten by an element of the utopian? Is there space to enact a utopian gesture without content, without program, perhaps in the name of the ‘emergent’, perhaps in the name of ‘critique’? By allowing for the unfinished character of the ‘not-yet’, as Bloch does, how do we trust that our thought and action does not assist in a state of repetition and conservation?

Secondly, in ethnographic terms, Bloch’s insistence that the utopian can be found in many social forms of everyday life continues to hold true. Indeed, to argue that utopianism has disappeared would simply be incorrect. As neo-liberalism has compromised the space for a utopian political imagination, it has simultaneously created conditions for the vivid expression of cultures of the future, many of which are clearly built upon utopias, or their dystopic inversion. The surge of pentecostalism, suicide bombing, environmental catastrophism, for example, have in many ways colonized the spirit of utopia, playing it out in eschatological fashion. Other social forms, almost in mockery of the utopian, have produced new constellations of time in which the limited uncertainty of the future becomes massively profitable. Market speculation, trend-spotting, casino capitalism put the future to work in service of a predatory present, disavowing the largesse of politically motivated futures in favor of profitable probability and the management of risk. Such eschatological and ‘occupied’ futures are quite different from the kinds of old futures proposed by modernism. Indeed, modernist futures imagined either in terms of welfarist generation and life cycle, or in terms of coherent utopian/dystopian projections – think Brave New World, Metropolis, Blade Runner – seem no longer to represent contemporary imaginations. Such shifts in the cultures of the future alert us to the contingencies in the making of time and possibility.

These two modes of interpreting the logic of the future – the political philosophical and the ethnographic – are, of course, intertwined. One has only to look at protracted empirical social contradictions such as Israel-Palestine or the workings of late capitalism to realize that any philosophy of optimism is rendered precarious when read against the depressing repetition of such social relations. Yet these two modes seem to provide a way to engage some of the conceptual and material expressions and configurations of the contemporary utopian, or at least contemporary futures. The shifting relationships between past, present and future are critical in deciphering the times in which we live and negotiating the possibility of social transformation.

The Workshop took as its springboard Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia. We wished to read this text against contemporary social orders, either teasing out its meaning in light of current predicaments, or borrowing some of its key terms to reflect on our own critical dilemmas. By choosing a single text as collective starting point, we hoped to lend focus to our intellectual encounter, while leaving as much interpretive scope as possible to participants.

Achille Mbembe

Monday, April 11, 2011

Suffering and Surplus people

Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale spends the night in Diepsloot

Image and story: www.iol.co.za/news/politics/rich-tokyo-spends-night-among-poor-1.453846

The third session of the Sawyer Seminar on Property, Race and Poverty at Wits University began three weeks ago. Its second meeting focused on vulnerabilities and poverty. The 14 participants discussed readings concerning poverty in South Africa. This post is by C.A.K. Uzondu; Sawyer Seminar series postdoctoral fellow.

In his article, “The Third Force” S’bu Zikode reminds us that “poverty is not just suffering. It threatens us with death every day.” Zikode is explicit. Those violently constituted as “surplus peoples” are those whose death is rendered insignificant. Surplus people are allowed to die. Could it be that “surplus peoples,” those Fanon called the “wretched of the earth,” are those that are killed? This was the question troubling me.

First published in 1985, “The Surplus People Project” captured some of what it meant to be rendered “surplus people.” It reveals, as Mbembe would have it, the superfluous black bodies that were made vulnerable, debased, and wasted as a “necessary sacrifice.” This sacrifice may require either or both biological and social death. Still, on some level, The Surplus People Project also captured the way people resisted their subjection to, what Agamben terms, “bare life.”

And so, reading “The Surplus People Project” generated different emotions and questions for the participants. Some wondered why we were reading this material. After all there is often a lurking sense that we know what happened during apartheid. Others expressed angst over the information presented. The specificity provided, in some instances, made us acutely aware of how much we did not know, could not know. This in turn generated questions about the different power and restrictive possibilities of both statistics and narration. Another intervention relayed how The Surplus People Project problematized liberal and Marxist accounts of dispossession. The Surplus People Project also pointed our attention to the law and its relation to violence. One participant noted the way that the law, specifically the Orderly Movement and Settlement of Black Persons Bill, categorically denied any and all legal recourse to Africans. This of course was part of the attempt to systematically deploy the law to deny African citizenship in South Africa through the creation of banstustans.

Dispossession of Africans, however, did not start during apartheid. Critically, one participant reminded us to be cognizant of the failure of The Surplus People Project to register apartheid as an aspect of a longer history of colonialism and imperialism to which Africans had been subjected. Sol T. Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa, we were reminded, powerfully chronicled African dispossession in the early 1900s. This was an important intervention given the tendency to exceptionalize apartheid. Even with its limitations, I felt re-engaging with The Surplus People Project as important, as it is a history (necessarily partial) of the present. Obviously any engagement of vulnerability and poverty must necessarily be attentive to the historical specificity in which they were produced, as well as with the contemporary practices that reproduce and intensify them.

And so we turned to Abahlali baseMjondolo, South Africa’s largest shantytown movement, via S’Bu Zikode, and engagement with the same movement via articles by Anna Selmeczi and Xin Wei Ngiam.

“The Third Force” articulates the struggle for shackdwellers to be recognized as human being. If it is “all the pain and suffering that the poor are subjected to every second in our lives,” as Zikode puts it, that make them the Third Force, it is their maturation through the “thinking of the masses” and their political/moral action that constitutes the shackdwellers as political subjects, who are necessarily human beings. Collective thought and action are clearly constitutive of the political subjectification of shackdwellers. The echoes of Fanon are clear. In particular, I remember Fanon’s discussion in A Dying Colonization of the Algerian peoples’ embrace of the radio. Given the prominent place for direct action that S’Bu Zikode posits, do we need to probe more deeply the relationship between state violence and the constitution of shackdwellers as political subjects?

But then what kind of political subjects are shackdwellers? Do they experience their political subjectification, as what Pretyna terms, “biological citizens”? And is their political subjectification ultimately indeterminate? If shackdwellers inhabit a particular biopolitical order can we consider their relegation to shacks in shantytowns as a type of moderated indefinite detention similar to what Judith Butler discusses in Precarious Life? It seems that placing particular populations indefinitely in states of precarious existence, where the nature of their citizenship, even the nature of their ontological status as human beings remain indeterminate, is essential to the constitution of governmentality.

Zikode wants to expose the leaders (the second force) to this biopolitical order. He wants them to experience suffering as the shackdwellers live it. Thus, Zikode appeals for “leaders who are concerned about peoples’ lives” to “come and stay at least one week in the jondolos. They must feel the mud. They must share 6 toilets with 6, 000 people.” I think him to kind. A confession is in order! I have long dreamt not of appealing to such leaders, but forcing all upper echelons elected officials to endure such conditions. And to do so with no predetermined end date in site. In other words, I have dreamt of making “my” political leaders “surplus people.” Like Zikode, I imagine that if leaders live and experience life as marginalized people do, it can be transformative for them and positively inform their political decisions.

Still, I am uneasy. I wonder if this “hopefulness” risks a kind of moralism. Does it necessarily provide an engagement with essential institutional transformations that must be required to confront governmentality? This concern was voiced by a number of participants. Is it enough to follow the lead of movements like Abahlali if what they offer does not explicitly engage the specificities of our biopolitical moment? One participant reminded us of the Arendtian critique of conflating social issues with political issues. Unfortunately, we did not pursue the potentialities and problematics of this latter line of argument/inquiry.

We returned to suffering. Does Zikode insistence on “speaking suffering” disable engaging the specificities of our biopolitical era, even if Selmeczi is correct when she asserts that this is constitutive of Abahlali’s political subjectification? That there was considerable angst for some participants regarding this speaking suffering as counter-conduct and “living politics as form of knowledge,” was readily apparent. For Selmezci, the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo serves to express the shackdwellers position of themselves as knowledge producers and their settlements as places of learning. This, Selmezci claims, lends shackdwellers authority for “altering the material patterns of urban politics.” For some of my colleagues looming questions remained, especially given the recent allegations regarding murder by key members of Abahlali. One question raised sought to know what then would be the possibility of participation by intellectual/activists in a movement like Abahlali? Another wondered if sentiments like Abahlali’s demand that “those who feel it, should lead it” were not intertwined with a bourgeoning anti-intellectualism? Still another wanted to know then the place of critique and the critic? Did Abahlali’s injunction automatically restrict non-shackdwellers from critical evaluation of movement practices? Indisputably these were important questions.

Still, I wondered if we were adequately listening. Were we listening to ourselves and, critically, were we listening to Abahlali. This is a significant point for Selmezci and Ngiam in their readings of Abahlali. Thus Ngiam listens to Abahlali and hears the “rich and eloquent personal theorizations of injustice, democratic betrayal, and political ethics.” This for me was the profundity of theorizing from suffering. (It resonates, I think, with Mbembe’s suggestions that theorists begin with the categories of life and death). Starting from suffering, the specific suffering of shackdwellers, vitalizes morals and ethics. The emphasis on betray is important because it aims to rupture the common place of the “politics” of governmentality. Perhaps, precisely at a moment when such sentiments seem anachronistic, Abahlali calls for a reawakening of a moral compass that could ground a practice of solidarity. Our first task, then, is to listen. Whether or not this reawakening of morality and ethics is sufficient to confront biopolitics is an open question. In fact, biopolitics may be inadequate a conceptualization. It may be more accurate to think of our contemporary as governed by a necro-political/necro-economic modality of governance? Our very way(s) of life may be conditioned by some, the “surplus peoples,” being killed. If so, then our anxiety with theorizing from suffering may have to do with our fear of facing our own complicity. Does proceeding from suffering implore us to face our complicity in the constitution of violence? Perhaps we do not really want to listen to shackdwellers because what they are telling us about poverty, and therefore wealth, is what we cannot afford to countenance. Do we secretly valorize (implicitly) white-supremacist capitalist-patriarchy and its benefits and are unwilling to confront what we find ourselves unable to address? Thus, perhaps we should side step the question “if we are concerned with poverty, what exactly is the object of study?” (We never truly engaged this question, in any case). Maybe we should not start with poverty, but with inequality.

This is implicit, I think, in the case study by Mark Hunter, “The Difference that Place Makes,” which we glossed over for a lack of time. I turn to it briefly as a way to tentatively conclude. Hunter’s conclusion is that the most defining feature of contemporary transit camps is that they make populations “more invisible” as they ascribe formality. Could this have been avoided, if shackdwellers had been listened to? Even more, does Hunter (inadvertently?) point us to something deeper? Do we refrain from accepting the significance of theorizing from suffering because it is not sufficiently “modern”? If so, maybe we ought to contemplate Lindquvist’s claim that modernity is built on a “progress that presupposes genocide.”

C.A.K. Uzondu