Bite Size Theory

“[O]ne reason why the South African situation became so acute a marker of iniquity in the twentieth century was because it was an extreme example of the way people could be bounded beyond their own volition; into neighbourhoods, into families, into destinies, into lives, and into jails if they resisted. This strand of self-consciousness about borders and boundaries – a negotiation of frontiers and a fear of what lies beyond – is particularly (even if not uniquely) South African.”

Mark Gevisser, 2014, Lost and Found in Johannesburg.

Are We There Yet? Or, is this what fieldwork feels like?

UntitledI have just returned from Johannesburg, a city I have not been to since 1997, when I first went to South Africa. I had a nice time, and as ever, I learnt a lot in a  short space of time by being in a very different place. I have spent lots of time in South Africa in between that first trip and now, but apart from going in and out of the the airport and a brief day-trip in the early 2000s, not any time in Jo’burg. So it was an occasion for reflecting on what it is I have been doing coming and going to South Africa in the meantime.

I remain unsure whether or not the time I have spent in South Africa counts as ‘fieldwork’, a rather precious idea in GeographyLand, the everyday world which I inhabit. Does visiting other people’s countries and finding things out about them counts as ‘fieldwork’? I certainly think I have done ‘research’ in South Africa (actually, mainly, in Durban), but I’m still not sure why I am meant to think that the quality or significance of research is meant to depend on the implied sense of immersion or exposure associated with the idea of fieldwork.

IMG_0791I have been to South Africa 17 times in the last 19 years (it’s a long flight, you have time to count these things…). Adding up all those trips, which have been as long (or not?) as 3 months and as short as a week, I have spent almost a whole year of my life there since 1997. These trips have been funded by ‘seed’ money from the University of Reading, the OU, Exeter (and who knows what grew from that money), and by proper grown-up research funding from the British Academy, and especially from the Leverhulme Trust (an historically ambivalent source of funding for African research, it should be said). Some of these trips have been associated with formal research projects, some of them with conferences, and some of them just occasions to go and meet people and find things out. And it should be said that pretty much anything I have learnt while in this other place has been dependent on the generosity of South African academics, activists, lawyers, policy makers, journalists, and the like – generosity with their time, their insight, and their own analysis of the world they live in. ‘Being there’ turns out to be an opportunity to listen to the testimony others.

Actually, the more I go to South Africa, the less and less I think of it as a place in which to pretend to do ‘research’ – I initially went to do research on media policy, on my own, in my own name; but then I ended up collaborating with other people, which seems the only reasonable way of proceeding – in my case, falling under the spell of Di Scott, and then being part of a multi-person project on democracy in Durban with all sorts of other nice and smart people, and more recently accidentally conjuring writing projects with Sue Parnell and a shared project with Sophie Oldfield. Along the way, I have passed through all sorts of spaces of research knowledge: hotels, apartments, different cities, taxis, bookshops, beaches, living rooms, offices, bookshops, coffee shops, libraries, bookshops, shopping malls, bookshops in shopping malls. I have gone from researching media policy to researching urban-based environmental politics, using ‘methods’ including interviewing to watching TV and listening to the radio, to using more or less formal ‘archives’, on one occasion delivered in person as a pile of paper, on another accessed by being ushered into a cupboard at the SABC.

I’ve actually learnt a lot about Theory across all these visits, in a weird inversion of Paulin Hountondji’s account of Africa’s ‘theoretical extraversion’ – about the way that ideas of the public sphere, or governmentality, or class, or decolonisation, amongst others, resonate and settle in a place like South Africa. Most recently, this has been my main excuse for visiting, to learn more about how ‘urban theory’ circulates through and emerges from South African situations.

So, anyway, I wonder still why it is that time spent in South Africa should present itself (to me, but also to others faced with me) as a source of something like ‘field’ experience in a way that, for example, time spent in the USA seems not to. I have, I think (I know), actually spent more time in the States as an adult than I have in South Africa, including a whole year of immersive ethnographic observation of GeographyLand at Ohio State. I have an American sister. I’ve walked pretty much the entire length of Peachtree Street (although not all at once). But none of that is translatable into a claim of professional expertise about American life and culture and politics in the way that, I suspect, time in South Africa could be. And in saying that, I know it is the case because I have a distinct sense that I have not been very good at constructing an aura of either ‘developmental’ or ‘ethnographic’ or ‘(South) Africanist’ expertise on the basis of all that time in South Africa.

And now back to life in Swindon. A non-city much the same age as Durban, half a century older than Johannesburg, and about 300 years younger than Cape Town. But no less weird than any of them.

Durban Nyts

acI find myself in Durban, where it’s hot and sticky in ways that I had forgotten. I am here to take part in the Southern African City Studies conference, which I am really looking forward to. I’m ere too to start (preliminary) work, in earnest, on the project that Sophie Oldfield and I are collaborating exploring the changing imperatives of South African urban thought.

This is my first trip to Durban for 10 years, having spent quite a lot of time here in the early and mid-2000s. In the meantime, we’ve had babies, lost parents, got new jobs, moved house, moved town, and kept the cat alive. So far, after about 7 hours here, it seems very familiar and yet subtly different. Or, in some ways, not so subtly different. This is also the first time I have been to Durban, or eThekwini, it’s rather lovely Zulu name, since the controversial programme of renaming lots of the city’s roads, overseen by the former City Manager and geographer Mike Sutcliffe, in which (some) road-names with Anglo or colonial or apartheid associations were replaced with names honouring heroes and heroines of ‘the struggle’. And it’s not just South Africans who are so honoured – I am staying just around the corner from Amilcar Cabral Road. You turn a corner around here, and there is a reminder – no, literally, a sign – of an important anti-colonial thinker or Pan-African activist. It’s like browsing the spines of a vast bookshelf diffused across the street plan of the city: it could be the basis of a great field-world exercise.

Changing imperatives of urban thought in South Africa

IMG_3313I have been meaning to congratulate Sophie Oldfield, of Geography at the University of Cape Town and the African Centre for Cities, who has been awarded British Academy Newton Advanced Fellowship. The fellowship involves a collaboration between UK and non-UK universities, in this case between Sophie at UCT and me at Exeter. The project, South African Urban Imperatives Past, Present and Future: Theory Building with Knowledge Beyond the University, has various strands, with an over-arching focus on  exploring the changing notions of commitment and engagement in urban scholarship in South African over the last 40 years or so. It’s very much a development of Sophie’s challenging research work on the difficult politics of engagement between academy and activism. I’m really looking forward to working together with Sophie on the various aspects of this project over the next couple of years.

Here is the abstract for the overall project:

“The Fellowship starts from the premise that urban scholarship has been central to defining the strategic possibilities of political change and socio-economic development in South Africa for 40 years, either side of the transition from apartheid to democracy. The Fellowship focuses on the distinctive imperatives of engagement that shape South African urban scholarship. These include practices of activism, consultancy, forms of co-production, and more conventional forms of academic expertise and critique. The Fellowship will focus on the reorientation of urban social science in post-apartheid South Africa, in light of changing societal imperatives of development, reconciliation, and transformation. In so doing, it will draw into view the ways in which academic knowledge articulates diverse forms of non-academic knowledge that express diverse interests and needs.”

Songs from South Africa

DSCF4685I have just returned home from a couple of weeks in Cape Town, not a holiday, but a research-trip related to the Leverhulme project on The Urbanization of Responsibility. An exercise in ‘learning from another region’, that’s how I would characterise it. Anyway, one of the things that happens when I am in South Africa is that I find myself needing to buy something, anything, to listen to, while working and/or driving. As a result, over the years, I have collected an odd assortment of CDs, which have become indelibly connected to South Africa by virtue of being the only thing I had to listen to for weeks or even months on end. So here is my Top 10 “Random songs that I have collected on trips to South Africa”, in no particular order, and with nothing else in common at all:

1). H.W.C. – Liz Phair.

2). Free Nelson Mandela – Special AKA.

3). Rudy – Supertramp.

4). Get on the Good Foot – James Brown.

5). Big Jet Plane – Primal Scream.

6). Nkalakatha – Mandoza.

7). Mr. Soul – Buffulo Springfield.

8). Sindiza Ngecadilacs – Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks.

9). No More Lonely Nights – The Heads.

10). Ndlovu Iyangena – Tokolo.

Theorising emergent public spheres

ActaI have previously mentioned attending a recent conference on publics and problems at Westminster, where I talked to a forthcoming paper titled Theorising emergent public spheres – well, it is now published, which is nice. The paper works through some ideas about how to think about the values of publicness, in relation to various issues arising from South African politics and public culture. I try to use the South African examples as occasions to think about how the values associated with  publicness always arise in contexts of ‘extension’, and therefore of transformation and translation, and not just of ‘application’ (the paper doesn’t actually put in like that though).

This paper sits alongside another one, more explicitly framed around how best to think about the value of public space, which together seek to spell out an analytical framework of sorts, or a set of questions at least, for investigating the formation of public life. These pieces are products of 5 years worth of workshopping around ‘public’ topics, including various ongoing invitations to listen or talk. I’m not sure if sitting around listening to what other people think about publicness, and specifically why they think it matters or not, counts as fieldwork but I have ended up thinking that this has been the ‘methodology’ I have been using to ‘theorise’ about these issues.

My paper is part of a theme issue of a South African journal, based at the University of Free State, called Acta AcademicaThe special issue on publics arises out of a workshop held in Bloemfontein back in 2012. It is also the first edition of the re-launched journal, which under the editorship of Lis Lange is now framed very clearly as a venue for “Critical views on society, culture and politics”:

“Acta Academica is an academic journal dedicated to scholarship in the humanities. The journal publishes scholarly articles that examine society, culture and politics past and present from a critical social theory perspective. The journal is also interested in scholarly work that examines how the humanities in the 21st Century are responding to the double imperative of theorising the world and changing it.”

The journal is available via the Sabinet platform, and it does also have an page (here). I have copies of the papers in this special issue should you be interested.

Bite Size Theory: Rethinking the South African Crisis

“Ironically, attempts to render technical that which is inherently political are feeding into and amplifying the proliferation of populist politics”.

Gill Hart, 2013, Rethinking the South African Crisis: Nationalism, Populism, Hegemony, University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Press.

Africa’s Urban Revolution: new edited book

africa urbanI was in Cape Town a couple of weeks ago, visiting and talking to people in Geography at UCT and UWC and the African Centre for Cities at UCT – about urban things, related to the impending start of my Leverhulme fellowship on urban problematizations (as I’ve decided to start thinking about it). Inevitably, part of the trip involved bookshop ethnography – Cape Town has some great bookshops, in the sort of way that bookshops in other people’s country’s always seem exciting to academic visitors because, well, they tend to be full of local books difficult to find back home (or things you probably could if only you had noticed they had been published, like Gill Hart’s newish book Rethinking the South African Crisis). I was actually quite strong and did not buy too many – it was election week, so there were loads of new books on South African politics, including some excellent little books in the Jacana Pocket Series.

One book I didn’t buy, but was given (Thankyou!), was a new collection edited  by Sue Parnell and Edgar Pieterse, Africa’s Urban Revolution. It includes essays on a range of issues, from transport to violent conflict, religion to food security. There is lots of debate and discussion at the moment, in certain circles at least, about ‘southern theory’, southern epistemologies, ‘theorising from the global South’ (not least from this cluster of people – Sue is also co-editor, with Sophie Oldfield, of the new Routledge Handbook on Cities on the Global South). The collection is one element of a ‘knowledge experiment’, as Edgar has described it, based at the ACC to think through the distinctive, emergent politics of ‘southern urbanisms‘. This particular collection is notable because it is oriented to both academics and practitioners, an overlapping field of ‘thought’ that might be one the distinctive things about urban theorising from ‘the South’. It is not an example of ‘applied’ academic work, mind you – rather, it the essays demonstrate that key theoretical questions (just what is ‘urban’, or how does one conceptualise urbanization?), normative issues (are ‘slums’ things to be eradicated, upgraded, integrated?), and methodological dilemmas (what sorts of data are available about African urban processes, how reliable are they, what is their scope), are all central to contested practices of policy making, planning, design and management in African cities. I was struck in particular by the recurrent theme of data sources across the chapters – there is an interesting, if only implicit line running through the book that the politics of African urban life might be shaped in fundamental respects by what one might call a ‘governmentality deficit’, and in turn the sense that effective and accountable modes of surveillance (i.e. censuses, surveys, forecasts) might be central to the achievement of aims such as poverty alleviation, social justice, or substantive democratization.

The editors note that this collection is a kind of companion a collection from last year, Rogue Urbanismthat’s a more arty, cultural-focussed collection, it has colour pictures; the two aspects of the work curated, shall we say, at ACC come together nicely in the magazine Cityscapes.

Anyway, there is a launch event for the new collection next week, in Cape Town. I’m not going, I’m back in Swindon. But if you are interested in things urban, and in particular in ‘thinking problematically’, as somebody once said, about urban issues, then the portfolio of work coming out of the ACC node, or is it a nexus, is exemplary stuff.

Post-apartheid Geographies

At the Society and Space webpage, a series of research papers on aspects of post-apartheid South Africa, taken from the various Environment and Planning journals (well, A, C, and D), have been collected as a Virtual Theme issue – these will be available open access for three months. Antipode have a similar Spotlight on South Africa section.

New book by Gill Hart on South African politics

ANC 003Only just noticed this, news of a new book by Gill Hart on contemporary South African politics, Rethinking the South African Crisis: nationalism, populism, hegemony. Here is the blurb: 

“Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has become an extreme but not exceptional embodiment of forces at play in many other regions of the world: intensifying inequality alongside “wageless life”; proliferating forms of protest and populist politics that move in different directions; and official efforts at containment ranging from liberal interventions targeting specific populations to increasingly common police brutality.

Rethinking the South African Crisis revisits longstanding debates to shed new light on the transition from apartheid. Drawing on nearly twenty years of ethnographic research, Hart argues that local government has become the key site of contradictions. Local practices, conflicts and struggles in the arenas of everyday life feed into and are shaped by simultaneous processes of de-nationalisation and re-nationalisation. Together they are key to understanding the erosion of ANC hegemony, and the proliferation of populist politics.

This book provides an innovative dialectical analysis of the ongoing, unstable and unresolved crisis in South Africa today. It also suggests how Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution, adapted and translated for present circumstances with the help of Fanon, can do useful analytical and political work in South Africa and beyond.”