Friday, September 28, 2012

Writing Khabzela into the future

I have just dispatched a book into cyberspace, courtesy of amazon.com, and it’s a wonderful feeling. Khabzela. I actually wrote it seven years ago, soon after returning to South Africa after several years in London, working on the Guardian’s comment and analysis pages. I had watched with some frustration the way South Africa was portrayed: Aids was now the prism through which it was viewed. The government had just won the case against the pharmaceutical companies, forcing them to allow generic anti-retroviral drugs and thus make it affordable to treat the hundreds of thousands of South Africans infected with the HI virus. Now the blame shifted to the president, Aids dissident, Thabo Mbeki. Perceptions of South Africa were reduced to villain vs victim: uncaring, remote Big Man president as the only obstacle to life-saving medication for his hapless, helpless people.
When I returned to South Africa in 2003, I found of course, that it was a noisy, fractious democracy but the silence on the subject of HIV/Aids was deafening. This couldn’t surely be pinned on one man. Then Khabzela, the hottest DJ on the hottest youth radio station in South Africa, Yfm, came out on air with his positive HIV diagnosis. I interviewed him but he was already suffering from dementia and he died a few months later, having refused to take ARV medication. Mbeki’s confusing messages about the cause of Aids might have contributed to this refusal but certainly didn’t explain it. For the next year, aided by a writing fellowship at the edgy, innovative Wits research institute, WISER, I explored his life in an attempt to understand why. I interviewed his family, his childhood friends, his girlfriends, his colleagues at Yfm and in the taxi industry, his sangoma and the dodgy white miracle peddlers he turned to in his increasing desperation. Finally, I sat down with the piles of transcripts of numerous interviews. How to write it? Khabzela and I were both South Africans but apartheid’s rigid racial divide meant we could have grown up in two different countries. I now had control of how to frame his story. How not to emulate the same pigeon-holing I had been so critical of in London?
Unless I went about this with maximum self-awareness, I too was going to shape the story to fit my own preconceptions. And no matter how empathetic I was, I could not claim to be familiar with the intimate agonies and yearnings of a black man who had grown up under apartheid.
I decided I could not use the traditional biographical tool of omniscient narrator. I made myself a peripheral character in the book, trying to  be upfront about where I was coming from. For the rest, I used as far as possible verbatim quotes from my interviewees so that they got to tell their stories in their own words. I was simply the conduit, weaving it all together into a coherent narrative. I remember falling into quite an intense depression in the months I was writing Khabzela. Analysing it afterwards, it was clear why. The interviews had been done while Khabzela was dying and shortly after his death. Virtually everyone I spoke to was still in the throes of shock and grief – and fear. If it happened to Khabzela, it could happen to them too. These were the voices that were swilling around in my head in those long, lonely months of writing.
This month, Khabzela would have turned 44.  He died in 2004. This book was first published the following year, in September 2005, exactly seven years ago.
It became a best-seller in South Africa’s undemanding terms: selling nearly 5,000 copies. The author gets 10% of the proceeds, going up to 12% for the second print run. In the seven years since its publication, I have made enough to pay the bills for almost two full months.
But, as with the research and writing of the book, it has taken me to interesting places. Zackie Achmat got me to address activists at the then ground-breaking Treatment Action Campaign. And later to sit on a panel at an Aids conference he chaired, consisting of celebrities’ experience of Aids. I sat next to John Smit, then Springbok captain, who was remarkably articulate on the subject. In the cavernous waiting room of the HIV/Aids unit at the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, I stood on a plastic chair and, aided by a translator, related Khabzela as cautionary tale to the captive patients: this is what will happen to you if you don’t take your medication. I was whisked off to a castle on a lake in Salzburg to pontificate on biography-as-mirror-of-society in the illustrious society of Claire Tomalin and Vikram Seth.
And now Khabzela is taking me on yet another journey.
Publishing has been revolutionized since I first handed over my manuscript in 2005. Then the author was reduced to bystander as the publisher, with exclusive license over one’s work, took control of print runs, distribution, pricing and marketing. I have a different publisher now but I think that, generally, the relationship between publisher and author has shifted with the coming of the digital age to become more of a partnership.  
My latest royalty statement showed ever dwindling sales. I knew Khabzela was being prescribed at US universities but to get the physical copy there is expensive: the cost of posting a single book to London, for example, is R165.
Digital publishing transforms all that. It also offers the prospect of once again having control of the manuscript I had sweated and wept over. I dug out the contract I had signed in 2005 and sent it to Kundayi Masanzu, the copyright guru at  ANFASA, the non-fiction writers’ association. He confirmed I had not ceded rights to the electronic version of Khabzela and gave me sound, practical advice on how to go about establishing this fact with the publisher. That took several weeks. In the meantime, I began re-editing and updating the original manuscript. I found it reassuring to re-read it in the light of the current crisis in the mining industry. Only a few years ago, we were also in crisis: then hundreds of thousands of people were dying of Aids with no hope of affordable treatment. Now South Africa is the poster boy of the international Aids community, with the biggest HIV/Aids programme in the world, largely funded by the government.
I thought: this crisis too shall pass.
Amazon is remarkably user-friendly. I downloaded their idiot’s guide to converting a Word document to an e-book and managed to get pretty far before deciding I needed professional help. After hitting several brick walls – every publisher in South Africa seems to be in the process of converting their backlists into e-books and anyone with the necessary skills is kept very busy – I found Masha du Toit, here in Cape Town. She completed the conversion swiftly and effectively. My friend, Dirk Hartford, the founding CEO of Yfm and the man who spotted and cultivated Khabzela, sent me some of his old pictures of him and I chose a particularly evocative one, cropped it on my Mac and Masha turned it into a digital cover. Loading the book into the Kindle shop is fairly simple: you are given a few choices. On pricing, for example. If you opt to price it at anything over $9.99, you can only opt for a 35-65% royalty split with Amazon. They get the 65%.  Price it under 9.99 and you get 70%, although 30% then gets lopped off in tax for sales in the US. I chose an arbitrary middle ground: $5.99 but when it popped up for sale for the first time on the amazon.com website this morning, it was priced at $7.99. Who knows if it will find any takers at all? But, it’s a good feeling, being in control. And launching Khabzela off on another life, out there in the ether.
Liz McGregor

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

We can all be messiah individually if we give up our self-preserving sense

Kelly Gillespie introduces Neo Muyanga
Johannesburg is a city that still produces messiahs at high frequency. Preachers of gospels both spiritual and secular saturate the air with their messages, promising salvation and liberation from all possible imaginable oppressions. Money, power, sex, love, life, death – the holy people of Jozi can tell you all about it. Academic travellers most likely meet those belonging to the genres of cab drivers and drunkards in bars on 7th Street in Melville. Stories shared during coffee breaks revealed that JWTC participants were no strangers to these phenomena. But this blog does not dawdle with peripheral prophets. Hadn’t we members of academia come to Johannesburg secretly expecting to meet a real contemporary messiah, if not a club of messiahs? Was the purpose of our congregation not sharing bits and pieces of the messianic curricula that guide our own professional practices? After all, we had gathered in Johannesburg to raise the question of the futures of nature. The devils of oil capitalism, climate change politics and racist nature conservation discourses hunt us day and night.
After a week of pondering the futures of nature, the 2012 JWTC was ready for a serious messiah. The messiah we encountered on the evening of the seventh workshop day was Addis Shembe. We met her at the Dance Factory in Newtown. Addis is the main figure in Neo Muyanga’s brilliant operetta “The Flower of Shembe” (http://neomuyanga.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/the-flower-of-shembe-run-in-joburg/). The play narrates the story of a girl born as “a new-messiah-in-the-making”, the trials and tribulations she encounters and how she comes to terms with her own destiny. After having resolved seven trials and returned home to participate as a war general in the liberation of her people from the rule of a cruel dictator, Addis speaks:
“contrary to popular belief
the problem is not
but our immutable instinct
for self-preservation
the very fact, our glory,
makes it impossible for us to love”
(From the libretto of “The Flower of Shembe)

Neo Muyanga and members of his NeoSong Company had introduced “The Flower of Shembe” to us in a JWTC session moderated by Liz Gunner before we went to see the show. According to the composer, the operetta is a story about hope, joy and love. It is also a story that engages with spirituality, politics, youth and leadership. Asked by Liz Gunner whether there was a need for a new messiah today, Neo Muyanga answered that we live in cynical times and offered the following proposal: “we can all be messiah individually if we give up our self-preserving sense.”
Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks that “[a] man who possesses a language possesses as an indirect consequence the world expressed and implied by this language.” At the JWTC we discussed the epistemologies needed for practicing theory and criticism from the South. How does it come about that many academics these days take to writing about art? Are artists our new messiahs? Or is writing about art our way to be messiah individually? “The Flower of Shembe” is a story told in many languages that are brought together most eloquently. There are languages of the body, languages of movement, languages of music and languages of the visual. “The Flower of Shembe” is told in Sesotho, Maskanda, fashion design, Zulu, painting, English, dance, flowers, Opera, sculpture, animation short film (select listing with no particular order).
Being a historian of flowers and rather illiterate in matters of music and dance, I will end this blog with few sentences about the language of flowers used in the operetta and offer my own comment in the language of flowers. Flowers are present in the play in various forms. “Addis” means “flower” in Amharic. The stage setting contains beautiful huge metal flowers. The poster and libretto for “The Flower of Shembe” feature a painting of Addis with a protea on her forehead (http://neomuyanga.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/image.jpg). The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named the protea after the Greek god Proteus, the sea-god who changes his appearance constantly as to remain unseen by those who would approach him to use his gift of future telling. Linnaeus chose the name due to the many different forms in which the flower appeared. The plant also symbolically lives up to its name, as numerous meanings were attached to it, shifting according to time and space. Dictionaries of the “Language of Flowers” that fascinated 19th century Europe associate the protea with the meaning “courage”. The protea was prominently adopted by white settlers as a symbol of their South Africa and in 1976 the Protea cynaroides was officially declared the national flower. The new democratic South Africa holds on to it as a truly protean symbol. Due to their longevity, proteas and other fynbos plants have for long been popular as grave decoration. But the protea also has a history that reaches back before the flower represented death or nationalism. As Frieda Shenton’s mother in Zoë Wicomb’s short story “A Trip to the Gifberge” says: “Only fools and cowards would hand them over to the Boers. Those who put their stamp on things may see in it their own histories and hopes. But a bush is a bush; it doesn’t become what people think they turn it into. We know who lived in these mountains when the Europeans were still shivering in their own country. What they think of the veld and its flowers is of no interest to me.” (Zoë Wicomb, You can’t get lost in Cape Town (Roggebaai: Umuzi, 2008), 189)
In the Language of flowers my blog about “The Flower of Shembe” looks like this:

(Concept: Melanie Boehi, Flower arrangement: Karin Bachmann, Photographer: Jayne Batzofin)
Translation drawn together from numerous Language of flowers’ dictionaries:

arum lilies   magnificence
blue iris       faith, hope, wisdom, eloquence
protea         courage, diversity
red rose      love
strelitzia      faithfulness, joyfulness, paradise

Melanie Boehi
University of Basel

Monday, September 3, 2012

On the Politics of Latour - Reflections on the Things of Nature, Nature of Things

As Sarah Nuttall noted, panelists Annie Leatt, Daniel Roux, Meg Samuelson, Mandla Langa and Hylton White addressed the “nature of things” in many different registers: the sociological, the autobiographical, the literary and the (explicitly) theoretical. I focus here on some of the issues that two of these speakers raised, that returned me, in different ways, to theorizing from the South, conflicts in reading Latour, and the ambiguities in the “objects” and “natures” that concern non-subject-centered thinkers.

In the closing lecture of the panel, Hylton White expressed his dissatisfaction with Bruno Latour’s analytic effects in the humanities. Latour’s mistake, for White, lay in the idea that in “fetishism”, the subject is casting her representation onto things. As White argued, fetishism for Marx (and for critical theory) is a fetishism of commodities: it is not a general fetishism of “objects”, but a specific form of fetishism, in a specific –capitalist –context.
Quite unexpectedly, White’s critique of Latour took me back to a conversation with a friend in my hometown in India last summer. This friend and I had both recently proceeded from the Sociology department at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) to Euro-American universities; she joined the PhD program at the University of Heidelberg and I joined the New School. Our interactions with graduate students had led both of us to conclude that Latour was read in the Northern university context in a very different way than he was read in our university context in India. In the Northern academy, we thought, Latour was too often depoliticized, with Latourian approaches conceiving of the ‘agency of materials’ as if in a political vacuum, “distributing” agency between subjects and objects at the cost of attending to the power relations between subjects.[1]
In reflecting on this, what interested me was that White’s critique of Latour –his suggestion that when it comes to theorizing objects, it is necessary to pay attention to specificity, to the specific political and cultural contexts in which humans have specific relations with specific objects –bore a resemblance to many an Indian graduate student’s critique of Northern Latourians. At the same time, I was also struck by the divergence in the two contexts in how Latour’s work itself was read. Was there something, apart from the historical particularities of different academic cultures, that allowed for this quite stark difference in the reading of this particular author? 
To read Latour as if he himself pays no attention to broader political context is, I personally think, to misread him: The Latour of We Have Never Been Modern does call for an attention to networks of subjects and objects keeping in mind their political environment. Suggestions of this can be found in his discussion of the possibility of the creation of dangerous hybrids with consequences that the ‘moderns’ refuse to account for in the process of their innovation (exhibit: perhaps the hole in the ozone-layer itself) (see Latour 1993, 41), the modernist conceptualization of the ‘premoderns’ (part 4 of the text), and the endeavour to establish a ‘nonmodern constitution’ (138), that challenges “the great narrative of the West” (112) and guarantees that “the production of hybrids, by becoming explicit and collective, becomes the object of an enlarged democracy that regulates or slows down its cadence” (141, my emphasis).
At the same, what I think does allow for a reading of Latour as if he were politically vacuous is a central ambiguity in his own text: his tendency, throughout We Have Never Been Modern, to conflate ‘nature’ with ‘objects’, and the ‘subject’ with ‘society’. It is this conflation that I think makes it possible for a certain strand of Latourians to speak of  nature/object and subject/society –terms that have been falsely rendered synonymous in absolute abstraction, allowing for a vehement but extremely vague invocation of the ‘agency of things’. It seems that in post-Latour social science, even the staunchest critics of the nature-culture binary effect a different kind of categorical confusion in equating “nature” with “things”; so that even Achille Mbembe, in his incisive introductory lecture, critiqued in one sentence the “separation between us and nature, us and things”.
It is, finally, in this context that Annie Leatt’s talk, opening the panel, was particularly instructive. Through her interest in secularization and her ethnographic examples (deforestation and the ecology monks in Thailand; Jae Rhim Le, the Korean “scientist-artist” who thinks of the effect of the toxification of the human body on the environment)  Leatt makes a case for theorizing “nature” and “objects” together, instead of assuming a synonymity between them.  
Marx, one of the “moderns” that Latour critiqued and that Hylton White then used to critique Latour, was exceptionally careful in working out the relations between the subject, the object and nature. “Nature”, in Marx’s work, is both human nature and the external environment, and it is through his theory of labour and estrangement, particularly in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, that he shows us how (for him) they are connected.  If we are to think seriously about the “future of nature”- if we are to know the future of which “nature” we are talking about, rather than using the term to allude either to “objects” writ large or to an abstract, external environment –then it is to these kinds of connections, to the particular meaning of particular terms, in particular political situations, that we need to attend.  It is this that Leatt and White, in their otherwise very distinct discussions of their very distinct concerns, managed together to suggest.
Katyayani Dalmia

[1] Take, for example, the very popular 2005 essay on the North American blackout by Jane Bennett, where Bennett attempts to “distribute” agentive capacity, including the capacity for political transformation, between subjects and objects {“…though human reflexivity is indispensable for transforming political life, on many occasions and in a variety of ways the efficacy of political change is not a function of humans alone…effective agency is always an assemblage (Bennett 2005, 454)} Bennett is sensitive to the question of power, and to the critique that allowing for the agency of objects may undermine the political responsibility of subjects. And, she does specifically observe that “power is not equally distributed across the assemblage” (ibid, 445). Nevertheless, there is nothing in her method that in fact, allows for an accounting of the effect of this differential distribution of power {What, for instance, would Latour-inspired approaches such as Bennett’s make of gender?}