Monday, July 15, 2013

Aesthetics in Protest

Kim Gurney
 --Johannesburg, 06 July 2013--"We live in a drastically different world. The earth has shifted below our feet. I hear of and see pictures of protest everywhere ... Many people believe we had our so-called Spring, the revolution of 1994, and others differ. But we of course have the soundtrack for our revolution, the protest songs we are very well known for."
So began South African musician Neo Muyanga's introduction of a performance with Egyptian troupe El Warsha at Goethe-Institute on 29 June, as part of the Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism (JWTC), an annual initiative of WISER at Wits University. The performance was the end result of an experiment with protest music, past and present, from their respective countries. The key idea was to discover what elements might be shared in the popular protest archive of two vastly different musical cultures and compose protest anew from these commonalities.
The performance to a packed auditorium included solos, duets, instrumentals and voice and was interspersed with explanatory context. El Warsha explained how storytelling had become a large part of current protest in Egypt, from graffiti to poetry, and the group has been collecting testimonies over the past couple of years, one of which they performed -- the words of a mother whose son was shot. The evening ended with a rousing performance of Senzeni Na, a hymn as Muyanga put it, "that encouraged people to walk much further than they thought they could".
Photo: Kim Gurney
This collaboration forms part of a broader research project by Muyanga, housed at the University of the Western Cape, that keys into its famous Mayibuye archives. Muyanga earlier the same week played audio clips from this archive and others that also formed part of the performance remix.
He told the audience: "We are concerned this week with the idea of aesthetics, the idea of beauty, sadness, the idea of the art form in protest. We are not going to talk about it too much today but we will perform it for you." And quite so - his words cue a larger challenge in trying to evoke any artistic performance through a linguistic lens; it has its own register and impact.
Muyanga is no stranger to JWTC -- he participated in the 2012 session too and upon reflection the two projects seem pertinently linked. Last year, he presented in July to a public audience about his new operetta The Flower of Shembe, a mythic tale about faith and destiny that is loosely based on the lives of various messiahs. Muyanga told the audience back then that imagining a new world was imperative and a revolutionary strategy we must apply with vigour. He was fascinated by the link music establishes in the world, alikening notation to a kind of journalistic shorthand. And he spoke about the operetta storyline, demonstrating the fusion of musical principles on which it hinged: "It's a story about how difficult it is to love because we are wired to self-preserve, which is a barrier to love," he said in question time.
Referring to local political skirmishes at the time, Muyanga added at last year's session: "I do wonder whether we need a messiah so our messiah asks this question. The proposal is perhaps we can be the messiah -- to transcend the self-preservation sense and to give to the world." Questioned about what kind of leader might be proposed, Muyanga said: "We have become wired to expect certain talented erudite individuals to have answers so we give them a mandate. I don't know what the new proposal is. My thinking is circumscribed by the environment. The process is trying to find a clearer question that leads to another paradigm."
Photo: Kim Gurney
Kim Gurney is a visual artist, independent curator and freelance writer affiliated to University of Cape Town's African Centre for Cities

Monday, July 8, 2013

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Kabiru Salami 
is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology of the University of Ibadan Nigeria.  He was awarded a PhD degree from the University of Ibadan in 2008, with specialization in Medical Sociology. Kabiru works with population rather than individual health needs, within a larger social, economic, cultural, and historical context and applies definite skills and expertise to community health care needs. He was a recipient of global classroom’s International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice in 2008. He was also a recipient of Career Development Fellowship of the World Health Organization between 2010 and 2011.  He is currently on a scholarship scheme sponsored by the National Universities Commission (NUC) Nigeria, on Applied Gerontology Programme of the University of North Texas.  Dr Kabiru Salami belongs to several professional bodies including the Nigeria Anthropological and Sociological Association (NASA), International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP), and Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), Dakar, Senegal among others.
As one of the key speakers for the JWTC 2013, Kabiru’s teamwork addressed “Confusion as a Form” through Idioms and Analytics for Impasse and Precarity.  The atmosphere of JWTC was beneficial enough that even while theory and criticism were ongoing, Kabiru had the opportunity to discuss participation in another WiSER Workshop in September.


Elias Courson tracks the ambiguous and shifting lines of formal anomaly in his discussion of Sue Van Zyl's lecture.
The main focus of Sue’s paper is an attempt at theorizing or problematizing the concept of ANOMALY. She identifies four types of anomaly: being, exchange, action and thing. She anchors her conceptual project on Foucault’s genealogies: the notion of power/knowledge relations, and other theoretical insights from structural anthropology.
In her examination of these four types, she tries to examine the politics of Form with relation to anomaly. In my understanding, she describes anomaly as a very fluid concept that cannot be categorically defined and contextualized in any particular social form. Thus, anomaly as Form is socially constructed and politically institutionalized depending on what Foucault calls “discursive formation”. Anomaly is used here as a logic not of negation in political discourse. Knowledge formations create the conditions for the production of anomaly.
Alan Todd, Anomaly,http://fineartamerica.com/featured/anomaly-alan-todd.html 
She describes anomaly as ‘indiscernible counterpart’.  It is an exception, but also it is something that crosses established ways of categories. In life, we have man, animals, and things: The combination of any two of these categories produces a form of anomaly because such products cross categories (an anomaly in this sense is a Form that exhibits two categories in equal proportion). Anomalous Forms that traverse categories thereby produce difficult circumstances. Anomalous Forms in her view, occupy spaces of two categories: it is neither a form nor its negation. All four (monsters, contrabonds, neurotic symptom and art) are examples of anomalous Forms with political consequences as long as we don’t know what to do with them. Thus in each example, what are the consequences at stake in each anomalous situation? In all of these anomalous Forms, the Form cannot be categorized into any category. For example, the ‘monster’, she argues, is half animal and half man, e.g, the centaur, sphinx and harpy (thus it is neither man nor animal), hence, it is an anomalous Form. The monster as an anomalous Form occupies two categories, and in modern science the monster as an anomalous takes various Forms, i.e, the combination of ‘thing and man’ or animal and man’ depending on the anomalous Form of monster conceived.
Similarly, neurotic symptom would be considered as a Form of anomaly since actions undertaken by such persons cannot be classified in the realm of sanity or insanity. A neurotic is half sane and half insane, and actions by such individual cannot be classified into any of the realms (sanity or insanity) by law. Since the action does not fall within the purview of sanity or insanity, the need to determine its rationality or irrationality is required in order to give it a category. The politics of anomalous Form is thus about an issue/action that affects the legality or illegality of an action. By politics of anomalous Form, she refers to the politics and intricacies involved in the determination of the category of a person’s action. A situation whereby the actions of neurotic (a man half sane and half insane) has to be examined, to determine if such a person is liable or not is the politics of anomalous Form. In law ordinarily, punishment awaits all murderers, however a sane man is expected to face the wrath of the law while an insane is left off the hook on grounds of irrationality. The neurotic rebuttal is what Sue regards as anomaly of Forms. The neurotic is a Form of anomaly because psychiatrics and other experts would be called to determine the state of the neurotic so as to assign him a place in law. This is what Sue calls “the politics of Form”. There is a lot at stake in Forms of anomaly as espoused by Sue because we do not know what laws to judge them upon. As a Form of anomaly, we do not know how to police it. Forms of anomaly are thus problematic because we do not know what to do until we put them into category or categories: until they are put into categories we are at a loss. Spaces for Forms of anomaly are only created under historical circumstances: from the state of the actor in modernity we now have to prove whether an act is punishable or not, right or wrong. The action before its determination would be regarded as neither right nor wrong – making it metaphysical.
She seems to argue that once one has said that something is neither of categories, one is debarred from saying that it is or will be, of attributing to it a category or a dissolution in time, or any alteration or motion whatsoever. She supposes that anomalous Form had not always existed in its present cosmic state. They are derived from two categories, which they assert in various ways in order to produce category in the present world-order.
Sue’s Form of anomaly, I would conclude, is a ‘category-iless’ Form whose category is only socially constructed and determined by knowledge/power relations.
Elias Courson is lecturer in the Philosophy Department, Niger Delta University

Friday, July 5, 2013

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Melanie Boehi
Melanie Eva Boehi is a PhD student from the University of Basel, Switzerland. Her PhD dissertation is concerned with the South African botanical complex in the 20th and 21st century. The dissertation examines how social life in cities is negotiated by defining relationships between people and plants, how floral spaces can be approached as archives and flowers as carriers of historical narratives.

"A city can only exist for those who can move around it": Edgar Pieterse and Teresa Caldeira, Views from the Periphery

Melanie Boehi considers the possibilities of reconfiguring city-space in her response to Teresa Caldeira and Edgar Pieterse
How do city forms influence demonstrations? How do we think about urban forms and citizen engagement? What connects desires and design sensibilities? These and other questions were addressed in a panel hold on Tuesday, June 25, at the Goethe Institute. Teresa Caldeira presented an interpretation of the unfolding political protests in Brazilian cities and Edgar Pieterse talked about the need to better understand the functioning of infrastructure and networks in slum urbanism. 
In early June 2013, the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) called for a demonstration in São Paolo that was quickly followed by a series of large demonstrations all over the country. While the first demonstration focused on the demand for free public transport, subsequent demonstrations also asked for changes regarding corruption, investments for the FIFA World Cup, LGBT rights, pensioner’s rights and racism, and highlighted a class conflict between poor and middle class protestors. The police countered violently and politicians and the media reacted to the demonstrations with expressions of surprise and quickly labelled the marchers as vandals. In response to the inadequate reporting, the demonstrations became spaces of dialogue between what politicians and the press said and what people posted on the internet. Demonstrators carried messages on cardboards directed at the TV audience and social media users. The press was constantly contested and the main TV station hindered from covering the events in the streets.
According to Caldeira, the unfolding demonstrations emerged in two contexts. The first one is the demonstrations occuring globally since the beginning of the Arab spring. Demonstrators’ posters frequently express solidarity with other cities of protest. The second one is the prevalence of mass gatherings at cultural events in contemporary Brazil that have emerged over the past ten years and are now increasingly politicised, e.g. music and theatre festivals, demonstrations, gay parades, evangelical demonstrations. In São Paolo, the form of the city influenced the peripheral organisation of the demonstrations. Since the 1940s, migrants who couldn’t afford the city built houses in the periphery. With their social upward mobility, these houses were upgraded and urban social movements successfully demanded the supply of infrastructure such as water and electricity. The city had arrived in the periphery. In the 1990s, a series of negative factors affected life in the periphery, marked by economic downturn, youth unemployment and crime. Crime decreased after 2000, accompanied by an increase of artistic and cultural movements that embraced the notion of the city as a space for circulation. “A city only exists for those who can move around it” became a prominent slogan. Unlike elsewhere, the demonstrations in São Paolo did not focus on a square but were mobile. In a city with 11 million inhabitants, 7 million motor vehicles and an incredible amount of traffic, circulation was issue around which mass protest was first mobilised.
Image: Melanie Boehi
A different basis for mobilization for city changes exists in the slums in which 62 % of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population live, where urban life is marked by low and erratic household incomes, small tax bases and dysfunctional politics. Negative trends accumulate to an urban polycrisis, affecting the ecosystem, supply of water, energy and food, land distribution, employment and violence. According to Pieterse, participatory development is essential but insufficient to tackle the challenges of slum urbanism. Participatory development becomes ineffectual when the scope of challenges is vast, goes beyond urgent short-term concerns and includes high levels of complexity. It is therefore necessary to recognise the importance of city-wide networks, apply systemic thinking and take design seriously. Pieterse emphasised that much work needs to be done to understand the auto-constructions of urban slum citizens – desires, aspirations, affective registers, as well as focus on the understanding of networks, including the ones shaped by religious belief systems.
Image: Melanie Boehi
Melanie Boehi is a PhD student at the University of Basel, Switzerland
A more detailed discussion of Teresa's critique can be found here http://kafila.org/2013/07/05/sao-paulo-the-city-and-its-protests-teresa-caldeira/

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Matthew Omelsky
Matthew Omelsky is a doctoral student in English at Duke University. He works on African novels and films, jazz aesthetics, and science fiction. His work can be found in Research in African Literatures, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, and on the African literary blog brittlepaper.com.

Benjamin and Beckett in West Africa

Matthew Omelsky lingers on the spatial afterlives of Walter Benjamin and Samuel Beckett as traced by Ato Quayson in his lecture on Accra's Oxford Street. 
18 December 1926. Walter Benjamin writes in his Moscow Diary on the circuitous routes of pedestrian life in the Russian capital:
“It has been observed that pedestrians here walk in ‘zigzags.’ This is simply on account of the overcrowding of the narrow sidewalks…. They give Moscow a provincial air, or rather the character of an improvised metropolis that has fallen into place overnight.”
Today, in his lecture “Spatial Practices and Performative Streetscapes: Oxford St., Accra,” Ato Quayson drew from this brief moment in Benjamin’s Diary. Transposing and reconfiguring the zigzagging figure to the streets of Accra, Quayson spoke of the meandering pedestrian on the sidewalks of the bustling Oxford street, in the Osu neighborhood of Accra. But where the narrowness of Benjamin’s Moscow sidewalks necessitated zigzag movement, the sheer density of hawkers and merchandise covering the sidewalk necessitates labyrinthine movement in Quayson’s Accra. For Quayson, improvisatory walking is part of the performative streetscape of contemporary Accra. Figurations of global capital – from cell phone top-up cards, to handbags, to wheel barrows full of coconuts – saturate the walkways, creating obstacles for the Oxford pedestrian to bound around and over.
Oxford Street, Accra. Source: panoramio photos
Later in his talk, Quayson moved to another 20th century European figure, this time situating Samuel Beckett in contemporary Lagos. He likened the “burden of free time” on the streets of Lagos to that of Didi and Gogo in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But where Beckett’s absurdist protagonists speak to one another to while away time as they wait for the much-anticipated Godot, contemporary Lagosians pass time by remaking themselves and the objects around them. Didi and Gogo recycle language in their free time, Lagosians recycle space, Quayson says. Attempting to access labor and evade the paralysis of free time, the Lagosian moves through a cycle of ad hoc occupations, from shyster to pastor to water vendor. Objects, lives, and occupations are reworked in the Lagosian informal economy. Improvisation becomes a way of sustaining life in one’s perpetual search for work.
Quayson revealed how global capital has shaped the performative and improvisatory landscape of Oxford Street. He showed how we might begin to work through the spatial logics of West Africa via Beckett and Benjamin, but importantly, how West Africa and the work of these European vanguardists are often utterly incommensurable. Reaching outside of West Africa to work through the modern African city demands a contortion of these outside spatial logics, a mutation of thought from other geographies and epochs.
Matthew Omelsky is a PhD student in the Department of English, Duke University.